Using Dogs to Save Bears

Bears that threaten people or wreak havoc foraging for food are a little harder to deter than the average pest. In the usual scenario, they are trapped and relocated, and if the bear returns, it must be killed—not a popular solution. It took biologist Carrie Hunt and a team of Karelian Bear Dogs to teach a life-saving lesson to problem bears.

Hunt first got the idea in 1982 to so terrify bears with dog teams that they run away, never to return. "I went looking for a breed of dog that could get out there and push bears away safely," she says. Hunt focused on Karelian Bear Dogs—a breed that originated in Finland as companions for big game hunts. In 1990, Hunt found her foundation dog, Cassie, who "showed me it could be done." Cassie and her teammates now live and train with Hunt at the Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI) in Heber City, Utah.

Carrie Hunt trains "bear dogs" at the Wind River Bear Institute in Utah. Her success rate in saving bears is impressive.
Derek Reich / Zooprax Productions

In Hunt’s technique, a nuisance grizzly or black bear is trapped and released at the scene of its crime. Red pepper spray and rubber bullets shot from a 12-gauge shotgun sting the bear as it runs from the cage, and a firecracker-like explosion rockets it into all-out panic mode. As the bear flees, it’s chased by ferociously barking dogs. It’s no wonder the bears don’t return.

The dog teams have left conservationists enthusiastic. Brian Peck, wildlife consultant with the Great Bear Foundation and Sierra Club Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project, says, "In my opinion, Carrie’s work is top flight, real cutting-edge stuff that is saving grizzly bears." Hunt works with Tim Manley of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who maintains his own dog team, but Peck would like to see more Karelian teams on the job, including two in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and two in Yellowstone. Grizzly bear advocate James Musgrove agrees, adding, "Carrie Hunt and Tim Manley are doing important work, but lots of grizzly bears are still getting killed around Glacier and Yellowstone. This is a good cause that is helping bears."

The method’s success rate is high: The overwhelming majority of problem bears are conditioned to move to an area where they will be safe. Derek Reich, WRBI media coordinator, reports that interest has also been expressed in using dogs to save Asiatic black bears in Japan and polar bears in Manitoba, Canada.