Dogged Conservation: Karelian Bear Dogs and the Protection of Grizzlies

In 1910, renowned trophy hunters Creed Con and Billy Bald entered the Cascade Mountains near Blaine, Washington, accompanied by a brace of trusty bear dogs, in pursuit of an almost mythical creature—a “famous fugitive” grizzly whose alleged “depredations” had “terrified” local ranchers for more than a decade.

This grizzly’s only crime? It ate when it was hungry. Specious accounts claimed this legendary 1,600-pound bear killed more than 500 farm animals a year.

“Locating the scene of his latest robbery, the dogs led the men for a chase in the wildest part of the United States,” according to a contemporary report, and after three days flushed the panicked grizzly from its den, where the hunters dispatched the bear with a rifle shot and earned a $250 bounty.

120 years later, Nils Pedersen searched for bears in the wilderness outside Stevens Village, Alaska, south of the Yukon River, with a trio of Karelian bear dogs by his side. Unlike Con and Bald, however, Pedersen hoped to utilize his hunting dogs to save grizzly lives.

Pedersen, a wildlife biologist and Director of the Wind River Bear Institute, and his “wildlife K-9” team inserted with the Alaskan Fire Service as they fought the Isom Creek #187 fire this past June. Their job—keep hungry bears, flushed by the backcountry fire, from entering camps in search of unsecured food.

Joni – a Karelian Bear Dog on the Wind River Bear Institute team.

Wildland firefighters, exhausted after sixteen-hour shifts, sometimes shoot bears to protect their encampments. Pedersen and his Karelians—Soledad, Rio, and Mardy—patrolled the areas around the fire camp and steered bears away, sometimes throughout the night, which made lethal force unnecessary.

According to Pedersen, this kind of “proactive detection, mitigation, and response work” in the field helps “further our mission to reduce human caused bear mortality” throughout the American West.

Karelian bear dogs are an ancient breed of black-and-white spitz, originating in a rugged region along the border of Finland and Russia, with a fossil record dating back 10,000 years. Pedersen says they were the ideal Finnish homestead dog, capable of protecting their family’s hard-earned land while also hunting moose and brown bears in the area.

One biologist saw these primeval dogs as an opportunity to save endangered bears. Carrie Hunt made a career searching for non-lethal ways to prevent human-bear encounters. She pioneered the use of red pepper bear spray as a deterrent in 1980s and became convinced that the fearlessness and hunting capabilities of Karelian bear dogs made them an ideal envoy for her mission.

In 1996, she founded Wind River to train Karelians for the applied conservation of grizzlies, using a technique she dubbed “bear shepherding.”  Instead of relocating bears, well-trained Karelians and their handlers haze bears from encounter areas using the ingrained instincts of both animals.

Rich Beausoleil and team of Karelian Bear Dogs.

Karelians are naturally intelligent and aggressive, according to Rich Beausoleil, a bear and cougar specialist with the Washington Department Fish and Wildlife, and “we’re just taking that natural ability and putting it to good use.” The barking, nipping, leash-pulling dogs harry bears out of problem areas into safe “green zones” and, unlike relocation, give the bears a good reason not to return.

Bear evolution plays role in the efficacy of this method. Beausoleil says that bears evolved avoiding wolfpacks and this “innate fear” of wild canines transfers easily to the avoidance of assertive Karelians.

Bear shepherding is both safe and effective. “In twenty-five years of doing this work,” Pedersen stressed, “we’ve never had a dog injured, never had a bear injured nor a person injured working in the field.”

Both Pedersen and Beausoleil agree that the education of bear country residents is the most important factor in reducing human caused bear encounters.

For bear shepherding to be a permanent solution, people need to change behavioral patterns that attracts bears to humanized places. Essentially, bear country dwellers need to take better care of their trash. As Pedersen points out, if residents “get the garbage cleaned up, get bear proof containers in place, [and get] people storing their garbage containers in secure, hard sided structures” then hungry bears, already wary of the Karelians, will learn to avoid humanized spaces and forage on natural food sources.

Charismatic Karelian bear dogs can play a role in this education as well, serving as “wildlife ambassadors” as biologists try and teach responsible behavior, especially to children. Pedersen believes an effective “Wildlife K-9 needs to be able to push a grizzly bear away from the playground and then go inside the school and visit with the kids.”

Mowgli – a Karelian Bear Dog on the Wind River Bear Institute team.

Beausoleil concurs that these early interactions are important, and recalls a card he received from one youngster impressed with a Karelian named Indy.  “Hey Rich thanks for bringing Indy by [my school],” the student wrote, “I’m gonna tell my parents to secure the garbage [and] to take down the birdfeeders, so we don’t attract the bears. So Indy doesn’t have to come and chase the bears.”

This change in conduct is the key to reducing human-bear encounters in the American West, even more than applied conservation programs featuring Karelian bear dogs. As Beausoleil concludes: “You know the dogs aren’t the solution. The solution is the people.”

While that is a lesson Creed Con and Billy Bald never learned, it is message we must adopt today.