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.

"Next morning, we've tagged the bear, and we're banging and yelling at him when he wakes up in the trap. Dogs are barking at him too, so he's just hating that—being in the trap. He wants to get out of there," said Clarke, adding that officers with noisemakers and guns that fire tiny bean bags ensure the bear is even less comfortable upon its release.

"Just before the bear hits the woods, we let our dogs go," he added. "The bear sees these two dogs coming after him. They're barking, the barking is getting closer. And then, just when the bear reaches a predefined human boundary, we call them off."

The use of aversive conditioning to show bears how to avoid people is, said Hunt, truly unique, something that has changed how bear managers and scientists look at handling problem bears.

"Nobody thought this could be done," she said. Yet it has been done—so far, without serious injury to any of the dogs. "And Montana credits us with saving 18 grizzlies in the last three years."

Putting People in the Equation

Hunt feels strongly that the education program must be a two-way street; people as well as bears need to learn their place.

"We work with whole communities, and ask the communities to clean up their (bear) attractants. We go door-to-door. We do 300 to 600 homes a year," she said.

With the help of Kuma and Mica, the human part of the program seems to be going quite well in Alberta.

"The PR it creates is incredible," said Clarke. "The people in the community of Crowsnest Pass have accepted these dogs as theirs. We do several talks at schools, so the kids go home and say 'Dad, smarten up; don't leave your garbage out. Put your birdfeeders away in the summertime.' We also tell people to yell and let their dogs bark if they see a resident bear. Hopefully the bear will remember his last encounter with Kuma and Mica."

The dogs are three-quarters of the way through a two-year training program. Their education is going so well that they are being used to work with other species, such as cougars, moose, and bighorn sheep.

Once the dogs' training is complete, the Alberta government plans to evaluate their effectiveness over a three-year period, then decide whether or not to continue the program, said Bergman.

Dogs With Jobs

Viewers of the National Geographic Channel outside the United States can watch the television series Dogs With Jobs.

Now in its third season, Dogs With Jobs explores new and unusual jobs and sheds more light on the powerful bonds between working dogs and their human partners. Every episode stars amazing dogs.

This season of Dogs with Jobs sniffs out a truffle hound in Italy and goes to Florida to track down a bat dog and a termite buster. Fourteen breeds never before seen on the show make an appearance, including Japanese Shiba Inu, Gos d'Atura Catala (Catalan sheepdogs), Spanish water dogs, the Hungarian Pumi, and Karelian bear dogs.

National Geographic Animals and Nature Guide: Go >>

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