Karelian Bear Dogs: the "Partners in Life" program visits Canada
Karelian bear dogs are trained extensively to work with their handler.© Parks Canada/Jenny Klafki/YNP
Habituated bears in the Lake Louise area
Habituated bear or also more likely to be run over on our highways and railways. Once a bear becomes habituated or used to people, action must be taken to reverse that bear's undesirable behaviour or the bear will likely become a risk to public safety and have to be destroyed.
Male sub-adult grizzly at base of Lake Louise ski hill prior to electric fencing of base area in 2001.© Parks Canada/Hal Morrison/YNP Slide Collection
To keep bears wild and in the ecosystem, our first goal is to prevent habituation.
When prevention fails, behaviour modification or "aversive conditioning" is a last resort that attempts to turn around a bear that is at risk.
The goal is to reduce conflicts between bears and people by teaching bears to behave in a manner that does not put them in conflict with people. The program uses Karelian bear dogs in combination with other aversive conditioning tools such as rubber bullets to modify a bear's behaviour.
Like many breeds of dogs who have been selectively bred over many generations to perform their given tasks superbly, the Karelian bear dog's verve lies in its special ability to track, confront and herd grizzly bears.
Years ago American biologist Carrie Hunt recognized the natural abilities of these dogs which originate from a region on the border of Finland and Russia. The bloodline and early promise that these little 20 kg. dogs offered in conditioning a bear's behaviour prompted Hunt to expand her repertoire of bear management tools. She began to train and work with them in our North American setting.
The warden charged with maintaining the peace between the visitors and the bears felt that our local conditions were right to warrant a short-term contract with Hunt and her team of dog handlers. The targets for this campaign were several habituated bears that frequented the busy frontcountry area around the Lake Louise townsite.
We use the word campaign here because that is the nature of this program. A twenty-four hour approach must be taken to ensure that the targeted bears receive a consistent message. In the 22 consecutive days of the campaign, the average field day was 14 hours and over 800 hours were logged by the wardens. Hunt's team consists of three dogs; each accompanied by a handler who is in fact a biologist.
For three weeks in 1999, Carrie and her team focused on teaching several habituated bears which were considered "on the brink", that they should not be around peopled areas (specifically, the Lake Louise townsite, campground and the base of Skiing Louise).
The three bears (two blacks and one grizzly) were already radio-collared as a result of their previous track record with humans, and their individual locations could readily be determined through radio telemetry.
Boundaries were decided upon for the areas heavily used by people. If one of the collared bears "crossed the line", the Karelian bear dogs, their handlers and wardens were soon in pursuit to push the bear back across the invisible line, emphatically telling the bear "NO - you can't be here but you're okay over there".
The dogs condition a bear to recognize that entering a human settlement area will have a negative outcome. The bear is given the choice of facing the barking dogs and yelling people, or finding sanctuary in its home range.
The dogs are seldom let off their leashes, but when they are, they give chase only for a short distance past the "line".
By teaching bears that they cannot be where people are, habituated bears can learn correct behaviours, decreasing the chance of initial or subsequent conflicts with people. This is especially important for female bears who teach their young where to find food and shelter and how to avoid the "bigger bears" over there. In this case, the Karelian bear dogs represent the "bigger bears".
The use of bear dogs and other aversive conditioning tools is more reactive to a bear’s undesirable behaviour than it is pro-active. However, the earlier and more consistent intervention is in the undesirable behaviour of a wayward bear, the more likely the message is understood or accepted.
What happened with the three bears conditioned in the summer of 1999?
Previous to the arrival of the bear dogs, the young female grizzly was also the subject of aggressive aversive conditioning by the wardens. In the short term, the grizzly appeared to be trying to avoid people. She denned above Lake Louise and emerged with a single cub in 2000. But it was apparent she was content to raise her cub in the busy Lake Louise area, crossing the railway tracks and busy Trans-Canada Highway numerous times. Though docile, her lack of wariness was a concern for both her safety and human safety. Wardens continued to try to haze and aversively condition her to stay out of the townsite. Her cub disappeared early in the summer. She survived to hibernate another winter. In 2001 she emerged from her den with two new cubs. That September she was killed on the railway tracks near the Bow Valley Parkway. Her cubs survived and denned. In 2002 the one-year-old female cub was killed on the Trans-Canada Highway. Her one-year-old brother survived to den in the Lake O’Hara area but was killed and eaten by an adult grizzly near Lake Louise in June 2003.
Of the black bears, the younger male black bear persisted in his human food-seeking ways. He travelled out of the park into Alberta where he got into garbage and was destroyed. The other bear was hit and killed by a vehicle on the far east end of Banff Avenue (Banff townsite) in 2003.
To learn more about Carrie Hunt's "Partners In Life" program look to http://www.beardogs.org/.