Photos by Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife and shibaguyz
By Ranny Green
They’re all black and white but their work assignments are far from that simplistic.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s six Karelian Bear Dogs – recognized as national treasures in their homeland (Finland) – and their two-legged partners respond to everything from the public’s bear and cougar sightings to finding illegally harvested wildlife kills. Add to that the team may be the department’s premier public ambassadors with their countless appearances in schools, fairs and other public events throughout the state.
And they are not costing the taxpayers a cent – the team is 100 percent supported by private donations. The purchase of the dogs, food, uniforms and veterinary treatment are the responsibility of the handler, hence it is critical the donation account is always fully funded. The monies are handled and maintained in a separate account and only used for one purpose – the dogs.
Although stationed in different cities, the tightknit unit converses regularly and occasionally responds together when the need arises.
When asked if they addressed training behavioral issues between themselves, Tacoma Officer Dustin Prater responded, “You bet! The others have been there, done that and are always available when questions arise. I’ve been on the phone with them many times when I’ve had questions about Spencer.”
All dogs are procured from the Wind River Bear Institute in Florence, Mont. ($4,500 for the dog and training), the nation’s premier Karelian Bear Dog outlet that supplies several other states and Canadian provinces with animals.
The bulk of the calls deal with black bears, says Officer Chris Moszeter (North Bend), who is paired with 88-pound Savute, but in his area the pair is called upon to respond to numerous cougar sightings, too.
The late biologist Rocky Spencer initiated the use of KBDs in 2003 with Mishka and following his death in 2007, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Chief Bruce Bjork initiated a one-year pilot program to evaluate the potential benefits of a KBD program in resolving conflicts between man and bear.
Officer Bruce Richards in Enumclaw was tasked with that assignment, along with Mishka, responding to dozens of problem bear complaints in Western Washington, along with countless public appearances as the program segued from the department’s wildlife division to enforcement division.
“Mishka had an amazing first year with Bruce,” recalls Carol Powers (Mill Creek office), program assistant. “Not only did they handle numerous bear and cougar calls, they tracked and found evidence for what was thought to be a potential homicide, which helped solve the case. Mishka also found a missing hiker who was the victim of a rock slide and also uncovered bleached year-old poached elk fragments in Olympic National Park within 15 minutes of arriving on the scene after more than 800 man hours had proven unsuccessful.” The remains had knife marks and enough tissue to perform DNA and identify the poacher, who was eventually prosecuted.
At the same time bear and cougar specialist Rich Beausoleil (Wenatchee), in the Wildlife division, was paired with a KBD named Cash in his region. Along with assisting officers with human-wildlife conflict, Beausoleil conducts bear and cougar research statewide. Cash is a key player there, too, helping capture these animals so they can be fitted with radio collars and released. In eight years, Cash has been involved with more than 400 bear and 110 cougar captures.
The Mishka/Richards team successes left department administrators with a no-brainer decision to move forward with a Karelian Bear Dog Program for the Enforcement division. Beausoleil has remained part of that team as a member of the Wildlife division.
“Using our KBDs as a non-lethal means to teach bears that residential areas are not an acceptable habitat for them,” explains Powers, “are key positives for the department.” There are times the officers remove bears but the dogs offer them options where they don’t always have to resort to the bullet.
Richards adds that the dogs establish a common bond with some non-hunting members of the public and the department during neighborhood bear-sighting responses. “It’s something that we as enforcement officers could not do alone,” he emphasizes.
All six KBD teams are on call 24/7 year-round. “Because the bears den up in the winter,” says Prater, “we get fewer calls about them now.”
Most den by the end of November, says Richards, hence the majority of bear-dog responses range from late April until late October. “Late May into early July produce the most sightings,” he adds, “because the berries have not ripened, giving bears some of their better food sources.” The bears lose up to 50 percent of their body weight while denning and are looking for high-caloric foods which the public provides all too often.
Here’s a scenario for a typical black-bear or cougar sighting:
The enforcement officer receives a call detailing where the animal was seen. He follows up with a return call aimed at producing additional information. If the report is determined to be credible the warden will respond immediately with emergency equipment (siren and lights) on.
Should the KBD team be delayed, the officer will request other law-enforcement personnel to respond and secure the scene. Upon arriving, he will talk to neighbors and inform them of what the KBD team will be doing and obtain permission to enter their property. Next, the officer will spend time looking for signs of the bear or cougar without his dog.
“The reason for this procedure,” explains Beausoleil, “is to determine which way the animal last moved so the dog doesn’t have to work as hard or for as long to be successful. We want its energy level to be high when it meets the animal, giving it the upper hand. These dogs know scent but not always direction.”
Once the officer has the complete story, he must determine the next course of action – will he simply haze the animal away or does the situation warrant capture. All of that dictates how the KBD will be utilized – on leash or off leash.
Next, the officer must quickly factor the setting and the best approach, determining the potential danger for his dog – roads, traffic, water, etc. Do roads need to be closed? Does other staff need to be positioned to stop traffic nearby?
Next, the dog is released.
On some occasions, the responding officer will conduct a “hard release” of the bear after it is captured – if the area is safe, adds Prater. This is a non-lethal process aimed at instilling a black bear’s natural fear of humans. But In most cases, it involves transporting the tranquilized animal in a giant cylinder container to a remote area and releasing it to a tumult of noises – shouting officers, firecrackers, stinging pellets and barking Karelian Bear Dogs – as it exits quickly toward the woods. Richards estimates 80 percent of bears released in this manner avoid people thereafter.
Because this program is totally dependent on the public’s donations, the six officers’ public appearances and media interviews are critical to its success. “The dogs are the best form of public education,” emphasizes Beausoleil. “After we go to schools, talk about what we do and show pictures of the bears and cougars, the kids send many thank-you notes. They say: ‘I am going to tell my parents to take in the garbage and bird food so we don’t attract bears so Cash doesn’t have to come and chase the bears.’ It’s amazing they get the entire message because they interacted with the KBDs.”
The questions most asked are: “What kind of dog is that?” “A what, bear dog?” “Is he friendly?” “What does he do?”
Each of the officers has a highly memorable field response.
For Beausoleil, it dealt with a very rare black-bear attack on a Bellevue city councilman at his Lake Wenatchee vacation home in September 2010.
“It was a rainy weekend,” he recalls, “and after midnight we got the call. I brought Cash out there and within 15 minutes he cornered the bear responsible for the attack and we were able to remove it – one of the very few times we have had to use the dogs for a lethal removal. Had the dog not captured the bear there would have been plenty of public concern that this bear was still out there.”
Prater remembers an incident in Lakewood (Pierce County) last summer involving a wayward black bear. “I received a call on my day off about a bear running from house to house. I was on the scene in about 20 minutes. Lakewood Police, along with a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officer were already chasing the bear.
“For the next hour Spencer (his 2-year-old, 63-pound KBD) gave chase. The challenge was the population density. Every time we would get close to the bear it would run, jump a fence and disappear onto the next property. Eventually, I let Spencer off-leash and he was able to hold the bear in a backyard, where we immobilized it without further incident.”
All six dogs are part of their owner-handler’s family pack, interacting with everyone and all pets in the household. All are socialized from birth by the breeders at the Wind River Bear Institute. Most are paired with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers at about 12 weeks of age. Wind River’s Carrie Hunt meticulously determines which puppies are suitable for agency challenges and then pairs each with a handler who best fits his/her personal needs and temperament.
“I spent three days with Carrie,” says Bellingham Officer Dave Jones, “working with Indy and making certain we were a good fit before I took him home.”
All dogs remain on-leash the first year on duty. When released they are equipped with GPS units on their collars, enabling their partners to know their whereabouts, which is often several hundred feet away in hilly and deeply wooded terrain.
The next call isn’t always limited to black bear and cougar. It might involve a moose in town, a bighorn sheep on the highway, or a poaching or orphaned animal of several species.
When asked for a one-word description of Karelian Bear Dogs, the officers’ responses closely mirrored each other: “driven,” “Intense,” “workaholic,” “loving,” ”independent,” “smart” and “stubborn.” Moszeter laughed and added, “And they see each of us as a taxi ride to their next hunt.”
Donations to maintain the program can be sent to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, KBD Fund, 16018 Mill Creek Blvd., Mill Creek, WA 98012.