When dozens of polar bears descended upon the northern Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, no one was sure what to do. The bears entered homes and public buildings, and people were afraid to go outside. But polar bears are an endangered species in Russia, and the federal government has refused to issue licenses to shoot them.
This “invasion,” as it’s been called, has sparked conversations about how prepared wildlife managers in North America are for an influx of polar bears as they lose critical habitat from melting sea ice and take to land in search of food. Similarly, black bears’ ranges are expanding and oil and gas development is increasingly close to or in bear territory. (Learn more: Two rare bear attacks show a rise in conflicts with people.)
Typically if a bear shows up at a dump or digging through someone’s garbage, “you’d either show up, corner the animal, and euthanize it,” says Alan Myers from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, "or you would dart the animal, put it in a cage, and take it many miles away. Those were the only two options and neither one of those was effective at all.”
One bear biologist, Carrie Hunt, has made it her life’s mission to find effective, non-lethal methods to prevent human-bear conflict. After watching how wildlife rangers’ dogs could scare bears away, she was inspired. In 1996, Hunt founded the Wind River Bear Institute, headquartered in Florence, Montana, to train a special breed of dogs to be “bear shepherds”—to bark and scare away bears when they get too close to human settlements and to condition them to steer clear.
Since then, law enforcement and wildlife agencies in the United States and Canada increasingly have begun turning to dogs as an alternative to keep bears away. Bear dogs now work with wildlife and land managers in the states of Washington and Nevada, as well as Alberta, Canada, and even in Japan. Several national parks, including Banff, Yosemite, and Glacier, have contracted bear dogs too.
“Bears are naturally afraid of canids,” Hunt says. “Why? Because packs of coyotes can steal cubs.”
The most common breed of bear dog is the Karelian bear dog, a black-and-white working dog that hails from the region between Finland and Russia called Karelia. Finnish breeders originally intended the animal to be a big game hunting dog, but Hunt realized they could be trained to manage wildlife, too. The Wind River Bear Institute breeds, trains, and sells Karelian bear dogs as well as contracts them out to agencies that don’t have the resources to have their own program.
“I am confident saying that thousands of bears have been spared the bullet using this nonlethal technique,” said Rich Beausoleil, a wildlife biologist with Washington’s wildlife department, which has eight dogs, in an email.
THE BEAR ‘BOOGIES OUT’
Bear dogs are especially helpful when a bear gets habituated to a particular spot, such as a garbage dump. The wildlife officer will trap the bear at the site, and then bring in the dogs.
“They’ll bark at this animal and scare the heck out of it [to] let them know it’s not where it’s supposed to be and it should never come back to this location,” Myers says. After the dogs have barked at the bear for a while, they open up the bear’s cage.
“The bear boogies out. It takes off like a rocket,” Myers says. Sometimes they fire beanbag rounds or rubber bullets to scare the bear even more, and then the bear dogs are released.
“They want to go out and get that bear,” says Nils Pedersen, the wildlife dog program coordinator at Wind River Bear Institute’s satellite kennel in Fairbanks, Alaska. They track it, bark at it, nip at its heels, until the dogs are called back by their handlers. By then, the bear has hopefully learned its lesson that that’s not a place it wants to return to.
“The good thing about bears is that they’re smart enough to know [and] to learn quickly. Studies have found there is a very good non-return rate,” according to Myers.
In the 20 years he’s been working with bear dogs, Beausoleil says he hasn’t seen any dogs injured because of their work. Hunt emphasizes that safety is her chief concern when sending dogs after bears, and she says they’ve had no injuries in the field either.
SOLEDAD THE "HUNTRESS"
Pedersen has formed a very close bond with his principal Karelian bear dog, Soledad.
“Over the years, Soledad and I have grown together in ways that can only be described as true partnership,” Pedersen says. “I think that our personalities were complimentary to begin with...but the joy that this dog brings me cannot be adequately put into words. Soledad is a huntress.”
Together they’ve released 500-pound black bears in Tahoe and pushed mama grizzlies with cubs out of campgrounds in the Rocky Mountains. But Soledad is also trained to do something else—she can sniff out polar bear dens. (Also read about dogs that can sniff out cancer.)
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, land managers at oil and gas fields and other work sites are required to establish mile-wide buffer zones around polar bear dens, preventing activity until their hibernation is over.
It’s an increasingly important role as polar bears move closer to human activity because of melting sea ice. Soledad can smell polar bears under feet of snow and alert Pedersen when she’s found a den, thus allowing the den and its inhabitants to finish their long sleep undisturbed.
CRIME SOLVERS AT WORK
Bear dogs have also been helpful in solving wildlife crimes. Beausoleil, who handles dogs Indy and Cash, says while their main duties relate to bears and cougars, they’ve also been tasked with helping investigate poaching.
When the wildlife department was tipped off that a gray wolf had been poached—the first in recent memory—it was critical to find the body.
“Officers searched hundreds of hours looking for it, and someone said, ‘You know what, geez, I wonder if the Karelian bear dog guys could find this?’” Beausoleil says.
The dogs were able to track down the carcass in 40 minutes. With the body, law enforcement was able to prove the crime and prosecute the case.
In another case, officers were tipped off that an elk had been poached, and they went to the suspect’s house to investigate, finding an elk head.
But they needed more evidence to bring the suspect to court. The investigators went out to search for the rest of the elk’s body, but they came up empty-handed. But within 20 minutes of bringing in the bear dog team, one of the dogs found elk remains. DNA from the head matched DNA from the remains. (Read about sniffer dogs that find cremated human remains in the rubble after wildfires.)
“They were able to prosecute once again based on being able to find the carcass, which we never would’ve found without the bear dog,” Beausoleil says.
Despite the enthusiasm for the program among some state wildlife managers, Karelian bear dogs aren’t the best choice for everyone or every setting.
Ann Bryant, executive director of The BEAR League, a volunteer bear conservation group in Tahoe, ran into obstacles trying to use them in populated areas. Fourteen years ago, the organization got two Karelian bear dogs, Anya and Dmytry, from a breeder and trained them up.
“Anya and Dmytry were a huge hit at our public lectures and outreaches and were able to help us talk some bears out from under homes,” Bryant said in an email, but “it quickly became evident that allowing them to chase bears through neighborhoods and across busy roadways and through shopping center parking lots was not a good idea.”
Furthermore, training bear dogs is a lot of work, and not everyone’s up to the challenge.
“It’s a huge, full-time job because that dog is there with you all the time,” Bryant says. “It can work, it’s not a panacea….You really got to research it, be dedicated at it. These dogs have to become your life.” (See the rigors of war dog training.)
Derek Reich, a volunteer who assists the Nevada Department of Wildlife with its bear dog team, says that the time and resources required to train bear dogs has limited the growth of their program.
“It's also easier for a lot of agencies to just kill the bear,” Reich said in an email. “In most states, black bears are a game species. It's a lot of effort and resources put into an animal who may just be harvested in a hunt the next week.”
After more than twenty years at the helm of the institute, Hunt says she’ll be stepping back soon from the program, and Pedersen will be taking over as executive director.
“I’m going to just work on breeding and raising the dogs and matching them and placing them in agencies (where) I know them,” she said. “I’m going to try to expand the use of these dogs into new areas that have bear problems like the east coast of the United States.”
Hunt says she’s proud of her legacy. “I had this dream, and it became a reality because I never gave up,” she says. “It was in my DNA to want to communicate with dogs and bears and work to help them.”