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By Rich Landers
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Barking at bears, romping through the forest, sniffing for poaching evidence, getting petted by a child and maybe cooling off with a swim in the Pend Oreille River ...
It’s all in a good day’s work for Jax, a 1-year-old Karelian bear dog employed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“The beauty of this breed is that Jax can be calm and licking the fingers of a kid one moment and then turn it on when he’s on the ground scaring the heck out of a bear,” said Keith Kirsch, the Spokane Region Fish and Wildlife police officer who trains, houses and handles Jax full time.
The agency’s six Karelian bear dogs are being used across the state for wildlife research, enforcement and for conditioning bears, cougars and moose to avoid humans. The dogs also are ambassadors and conversation starters for public wildlife education.
“They have the genetics to do it all very well,” said wildlife biologist Rich Beausoleil, the agency’s bear-cougar specialist in Wenatchee.
Most of the dogs were purchased over the past 13 years for about $4,000 each from the Wind River Bear Institute in Montana. Jax is the first Karelian assigned to the Spokane Region.
These wildlife service dogs are trained to confront sometimes dangerous animals without attacking or injuring them, Kirsch said. “We’ve used them to haze bighorn sheep off a highway,” he said.
Other states using Karelians for wildlife service include Montana, Nevada, California and the province of Alberta.
The dogs sometimes are used to find orphaned bears so they can be taken to rehabilitation centers for eventual release.
Nick Jord, the officer who oversees Washington’s Karelian program out of Seattle, said his 75-pound Karelian stepped up to another role in an unplanned bear encounter.
“I was alone with Colter when we discovered two cubs up in a tree,” he said. “I was trying to get out of there immediately when I saw this big, beautiful (black bear) sow barreling in on me.
“Colter responded and plowed into her side. He rolled over a bear more than twice his size. That gave us a chance to get out of there. Nobody hurt.”
Beausoleil handles a Karelian named Cash that’s been trained for a variety of work. In some cases, Cash will scent bears and cougars and chase them until they go up a tree so they can be tranquilized for wildlife study and collaring without having to be trapped.
“Cash has dealt with 500 bears and 130 cougars so far in his career and saved a lot of staff time,” he said.
The agency’s Karelians are taken to fairs, festivals and schools where they break the ice for staff to educate the public on living with dangerous wildlife.
Jax came to Spokane last year and debuted at 5 months old with Kirsch as they responded to a black bear cruising a North Side neighborhood.
The dog gave Kirsch an approachable platform to explain bear management to the crowd that had gathered on Oct. 16 along Lyons Avenue near Nevada Street. Meanwhile, department staff tranquilized and removed the bear from a tree.
Kirsch traveled with the crew to a release site and Jax did his part to help convince the bear to stay out of town.
“We don’t hurt the animals, just condition them,” Kirsch said.
“We don’t call them problem bears because the problems often are human-caused. Things like bird seed, pet food and unsecured garbage attracts bears and gets them into trouble.
“It’s not healthy in the long run for a bear to lose its fear of humans.”
Last week, Jax, Cash and Colter were used to condition two young orphaned black bears that had been caught during winter hanging around homes near Bead Lake.
“They were skinny and wouldn’t have made it through winter, so we trapped them and they were kept alive in an Idaho rehabilitation facility,” Kirsch said. “We wanted to do a hard release to get them back in the wild with the right attitude.”
Hard release means they scare the bear rather than simply letting it go free.
A text-book example of using Karelians to deal with a nuisance bear complaint goes as follows.
Officers use a baited culvert trap to capture the bear. The animal is sedated, given a health exam and ear-tagged so it can be identified later if encountered.
Neighbors are educated to clean up their garbage or other food sources that attracted the bear into trouble. Then the bear is released either on site or transported to a safer area. In either case, the dogs are used for a hard release.
“We prefer to release on site because it’s not good for a bear to be taken out of its home range,” Beausoleil said.
Instead of just drawing open the trap door and letting the bear go, at least two officers bring in dogs on leashes to bark and raise the bear’s anxiety.
Another officer might carry a shotgun that fires non-lethal projectiles to sting the bear if needed to get it running away.
The bear is given a head start out of the trap before the dogs are released to chase and scare it more before it leaves the area or climbs a tree.
“The idea of a hard release is to create a negative impression so the bear learns to avoid the site and humans,” Kirsch said. “You need at least two dogs to be effective. In the case of a grizzly, the minimum is three dogs.”
“Of 600 bears we’ve hard released, 96 percent have never been involved in another incident,” Beausoleil said.
Washington’s Karelian Bear Dog program is funded by donations garnered online, from presentations and fund-raising events.
“The GPS tracking collar I put on Jax was donated by the Northwest Sportsman Club,” Kirsch said. The collar allows the officer to know the dog’s position as it roams while the officer’s working.
“While I’m doing a routine check on hunters and their licenses, for example, Jax might be sniffing around beyond the scene to see if there’s sign of an illegal kill,” he said.
“Very little gets by his nose. He finds stuff. He finds evidence, day or night.”
Working in wolf country adds more risk to the dog’s work, Kirsch said. “It’s a nerve-wracking deal to have him out there sometimes because wolves don’t tolerate dogs.”
The Karelians are whistle-trained and wear electronic collars when loose, but they’re also encouraged to be independent thinkers, he said.
“Jax is training quite well,” Kirsch said, noting that he and the dog have been to clinics in Western Washington and he drives the pup to learn from veteran dogs in action whenever possible.
At home and in the field he works on commands such as come, sit, down, no, up-up and leave it.
“I want to let him cruise around and do his job without taking off after a white-tailed deer.”
The dogs live and travel with their handlers. “They’re gentle at home, but not the best pets,” Jord said. “Colter will dig his way out of a fenced yard or climb over a 6-foot-tall fence no problem. He’s so driven by his nose.”
The handlers’ service pickups are fitted with air-conditioned club-cab compartments for the dogs.
“They’re always with us,” Jord said last week after the successful hard release of two bears in Pend Oreille County. “And sometimes we smell like it.”
Jord pointed to slime on his dog’s back. “When the bear climbed up that tree, it poohed on Colter. It looks like this job is going to end with a trip to the river for a swim.”
Karelian bear dogs
Originating from Scandinavia and formalized as a breed in 1946, Karelian bear dogs are known for being calm with humans while being courageous in hunting or dealing with large prey such as bears and moose.
Their nature makes them a good public relations tool for wildlife managers, especially when they must do research or confront problem wildlife in populated areas.
Karelians are known for their ability to work independently in difficult conditions, barking, scaring and chasing megafauna on command while stopping short of attacking the wildlife.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Karelian Bear Dog Program includes one dog in each of the agency's six regions. The program is funded by private donations. Info here.