Bear Dogs on Patrol for Problem Grizzlies

Donald Dawson
for National Geographic News
July 18, 2002

In Canada's Rocky Mountains, man's best friend is helping humans and grizzlies share the land.

Wildlife officers in Alberta have obtained two Karelian bear dogs, a Northern European breed renowned for courage in the face of disgruntled bruins. Using techniques pioneered by Montana wildlife biologist Carrie Hunt, the 19-month-old dogs, Kuma and Mica, are learning to teach problem bears when and where they're not welcome.

"In terms of time and animals, it's a tremendous savings," said wildlife officer John Clarke, who along with partner Kirk Olchowy is training the dogs.

The five-year pilot project is the first of its kind in Canada and one of only a handful of such programs in the world. Its goal is to reduce what biologists call "human-caused mortality"—bears getting killed by people.

"It's human-caused mortality that's the main factor influencing whether or not bears can persist long-term in an area," said Carita Bergman, the area wildlife biologist for the Pincher Creek region of Southwest Alberta where the bear dog program is underway.

"The number one reason why grizzly bears die is management removal of nuisance bears," explained Hunt.

Typically, nuisance bears are shot by police or wildlife officers after they lose their natural fear of humans and begin lurking near human settlements in search of an easy meal. Hunt began examining ways of using Karelian bear dogs to tackle the problem of bear-human interaction some 12 years ago because she "got tired of watching bears die." She put together the Wind River Bear Institute in 1996 to further her ideas on "bear shepherding." It was from the non-profit, donation-funded Wind River Institute that Clarke and Olchowy obtained Kuma and Mica.

Hunt uses aversive conditioning techniques to show bears that there really is no such thing as a free lunch. By associating people with discomfort and noise, bears are educated to avoid human contact, eliminating the need for relocation or extermination. The Karelian bear dogs are an essential part of this process, said Hunt.

Black-and-white and medium-size, Karelians are members of the spitz family, similar to Russian laikas. The breed originated in Finland, where it is usually used to hunt bear, elk, and other, often large, animals.

Alternative to removal

In the Crowsnest Pass area where Kuma and Mica are being trained, fewer bears are being relocated hundreds of miles away if they cause a problem. Instead, Clarke and Olchowy simply sedate the bears, keep them overnight, and release them the following day using Hunt's methods.

Continued on Next Page >>


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