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Fish & Feathers: KBDs are key to Washington bear management

By Capt. RON MALAST

Observer columnist

Published on February 21, 2017 5:49PM

Mishka, a Karelian bear dog, barked at two bears in the cage just before their “hard release” into the woods. The presence of the dogs and officers making loud noises is meant to condition the bears to avoid human contact in the future.

WDFW

Mishka, a Karelian bear dog, barked at two bears in the cage just before their “hard release” into the woods. The presence of the dogs and officers making loud noises is meant to condition the bears to avoid human contact in the future.


You’re probably not very familiar with the Karelian bear dog (KBD), but they play an important role in Washington wildlife management.

In the 1980s biologist Carrie Hunt began popularizing them for the task of deterring and repelling bears. (See www.beardogs.org.) Unknown in most parts of the world, the KBG had been bred and used by brown bear hunters, moose hunters and farmers in Finland and Western Russia for centuries.

Just as border collies have an instinct for moving sheep, right from puppyhood some KBDs possess an instinct for safely handling bears. KBDs weigh 40 to 50 pounds when grown and are black and white with a black raccoon-like mask around the eyes. Their body is similar to that of a husky. KBDs are highly intelligent, sensitive and independent, with an innate love of people and children, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

WDFW now uses KBDs exclusively for bear and cougar conflicts. They are funded via private donations, and raised and trained at the Wind River Bear Institute in Florence, Montana.

Under Hunt’s direction, the institute provides dogs for the following roles:

• Bear-conflict dogs for bear managers, biologists, officers, wardens, rangers and private citizens.

• Bear-protection dogs for biologists, outfitters and campground managers.

• Companion dogs for active people who enjoy outdoor activities and provide “activities and commitment needed for a healthy, happy partnership with our highly intelligent Karelians.”

WDFD biologist Rocky Spencer started using KBDs in the agency in 2003, starting with Mishka.

WDFW’s enforcement chief at the time, Bruce Bjork, then decided to evaluate KBDs and their benefits for a non-lethal bear-management pilot program. Bjork chose WDFW Officer Bruce Richards to be Mishka’s handler during this test program. They were tasked with resolving as many bear complaints as possible. (See wdfw.wa.gov/enforcement/kbd/about.html.)

Though Richards has retired, the program still functions well. WDFW’s KBG kennel now houses between four and five dogs. They continue to be replaced as some are phased out of active service.

When a bear is live-trapped on the Long Beach Peninsula or elsewhere in the state and is determined to be suitable for relocation, WDFW officers stage a “hard release.” Officers point the capture pen in the right direction to make sure that the bear inside has path to escape.

The bear is turned loose, with a lot of yelling and barking on, while at least two officers stand by with shotguns to pepper the bears with stinging pellets if need be — not enough to disincline them to being near humans. About three KBDs nipping at their tails will generally make for a successful send-off.

Ron Malast can be reached at 360-665-3573 OR raiders7777@centurylink.net.



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