At the Wind River Bear Institute in Montana, bear biologist Carrie Hunt is training “bear conflict dogs” to scare bears away from human settlements in order to save these bears, The Guardian reports.
As humans spread into previously-wild areas of North America, and as conservation efforts have raised bear populations, encounters between people and bears are getting more common.
Game biologist Heather Reich told The Guardian that in the late ‘80s, the Nevada Department of Wildlife was receiving 14 calls about bear problems per year. In 2022, the number was 1,450 — over 100 times as many.
A bear living peacefully in wilderness areas and respecting the space of humans isn’t a safety issue. But while the National Park Service assures the public that most bears will still avoid humans, the ones that lose their fear of humans are a growing problem.
When bears come into settled areas looking for food, that’s dangerous for them and the humans they encounter. Bears in human spaces can cause injury, death, and property damage, so they may be put down to protect human lives.
Hunt hoped for a less violent solution. In 1996, she founded the Wind River Bear Institute. There, she trains dogs to confront bears and scare them away from inhabited areas.
“The dogs have a body language, an animal-to-animal conversation that speaks much stronger to the bear than I can,” Reich told The Guardian.
Bears are thought to be more afraid of canines than of humans since wolves and coyotes are a threat to bear cubs in their natural habitat. Speaking of an encounter with a dog, Reich said, “For the bear, it is a really bad experience.”
While that may sound mean, it’s actually very important. The Guardian reports that other methods of scaring a bear away, like using noisemakers and rubber bullets, get less effective over time as the bear learns that these unfamiliar items don’t harm them. But if dogs protect an area, the bear will learn to stay away.
To accomplish this, Hunt trains Karelian bear dogs, a Finnish breed originally raised to hunt large animals, The Guardian explains. Hunt’s dogs aren’t trained for hunting; instead, they alert humans to the presence of bears, and they chase bears to herd them out of the area without harming them.
Ultimately, the best thing humans can do for themselves and bears is to secure their food and garbage cans, removing the temptation of an easy meal.
“It is about teaching bears and people the correct behaviors so they can live in the same area,” Hunt told The Guardian.
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