Karelian Bear Dogs Manage Grizzly Bears in Montana

Last Updated on June 17, 2007 by Dogster Team


What a fascinating article from USA Today about a great breed! Dogster Mystic, seen to the left here, probably hasn’t encountered too many bears living in New Jersey but I bet she’s still a brave girl!

Keeping bears at bay is a grizzly job, but these dogs do it
By Gwen Florio, USA TODAY

FLORENCE, Mont. Let’s do some math.
Five hundred pounds vs. 55 pounds.

Four feet tall at the shoulder vs. 2 feet tall.

Three-inch claws vs., well, nubs.

Bear vs. bear dog.

Who wins?

Ideally, when Carrie Hunt’s Karelian bear dogs encounter a grizzly bear, both do.

Hunt uses Karelians medium-size black-and-white dogs used in Finland and Russia to hunt bear and moose to herd grizzly and black bears away from campgrounds, ranches and other places in the northern Rockies where the bears might come into contact with people. Such encounters could be disastrous for both.

“Sadly, even if it’s not a bad encounter, we have to put these poor bears down because some boo-boohead won’t clean up his place,” said James Jonkel, who heads the state of Montana’s Living With Black Bears, Grizzly Bears and Lions Project.

Grizzlies are a fact of life in parts of Montana, where the carnivorous species lends its name to all manner of businesses and events, from Grizzly Wireless to the Grizzly Marathon along the Rocky Mountain Front. (“The prospects of being able to safely view grizzlies along the course are good. The course will be well-monitored for runners’ safety,” according to the promotional material announcing the event.)

Grizzlies have preyed for years upon the farms and ranches bordering their territory, snagging the occasional chicken or sheep before melting back into the mountains. Now, the breathtaking scenery increasingly attracts wealthy owners of second homes and others from places where people live in houses and bears in zoos.

Bears without borders

Few are prepared to discover a grizzly emptying the contents of their backyard bird feeder, or even lumbering onto their front porch. The latter happened, repeatedly, to Deborah Kaufman when she moved 13 years ago to the remote community of Polebridge, 22 unpaved miles from the Canadian border, to run a general store and bakery.

“My son was 9 months old,” she said. “It was a whole different way to live to know that wolves, bears, mountain lions, everything, were here and that there could be an encounter. I just didn’t really want them in my yard with my baby.”

Enter Hunt, a longtime bear biologist who had become discouraged by the bear-management maxim: A fed bear is a dead bear.

Her “Partners-in-Life” program at the non-profit Wind River Bear Institute here aims to convince bears that people places are just not worth the aggravation. Take the sow grizzly and half-grown cub that haunted two backcountry campgrounds in Glacier National Park last summer.

“They were not showing normal bear behavior. They were not wary of people, and were coming in close,” said Matt Graves, a supervisory interpreter at the park.

The park shut the campgrounds, and called in Hunt’s dogs. Every time the bears came around, the Karelians got in their faces, barking maniacally. Hunt and her assistants provided backup, shooting rubber bullets at the bears, tossing loud “crackers” in their direction, and shouting, “Get out of here, bear!”

As soon as the bears ran back into the brush, the dogs and the noise stopped. The idea, said Hunt, was to punish bears for approaching, and reward them for running away.

The two campgrounds recently reopened, so far with no bear problems, Graves said.

“Bold,” Hunt calls her dogs. And, upon encountering a bear, “absolutely tenacious.”

Around people, the dogs are friendly and inquisitive, leaning up against strangers and licking their hands. That curiosity plays into their work with bears, said Russ Talmo, the Wind River Bear Institute’s program biologist.

Karelian puppies chosen for bear training are the ones “that won’t turn their backs on a spooky situation,” he said. The young dogs go through increasingly challenging situations, he said, including an encounter with “a big ol’ bear carcass with big smells and loud sounds, so that it looks alive.”

Young dogs are paired with experienced ones when they finally confront live bears in the Kananaskis region of Alberta, through an arrangement with Canadian government and private agencies. Hunt takes her dogs there for final training.

Barking worse than a bite

The dogs never touch a bear they work as a group on long leashes but intimidate it by barking so loudly and so relentlessly and from so many directions that it’s impossible for the bear to, say, relax and enjoy the contents of that cooler it was eyeballing.

“I’m quick to say that I’m no Timothy Treadwell,” said Hunt, referring to the bear enthusiast whose gruesome death was featured in the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man. “This is not about reaching out and touching bears. This is tough love.”

The results speak for themselves, she said.

“We’ve never had a dog injured, a bear injured, or a person injured in 12 years,” she said.

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