Pardon Us, Yogi. May We Have a Word with You?
Late one evening last fall, as darkness drew in on Montana's Great Bear Wilderness, a hunter on a lathered horse reined up in front of Carrie Hunt and Tim Manley's camp, shouting breathlessly. A radio-collared grizzly was ripping apart his tent, and he wanted to know what the hell the two bear biologists were going to do about it. Hunt and Manley set out at once. Arriving at the hunter's camp, they placed themselves between the hungry grizzly and the tent, and then spent the rest of the night under siege as the fiercely determined animal tried to storm the campground. Standing between them and the 350-pound bear: Cassie and Tess, the biologists' 60-pound Karelian bear dogs. “From nine o'clock until two in the morning, this bear tried to come in over the top of us,” says Hunt. “Cassie never quit barking and stood facing the bear for hours. Tess followed her mother's lead. No fear. The bear never got in around us.”
The grizzly belonged to coterie of bad-mannered bears that like to paw open tent flaps, shred backpacks, and burglarize cabins in search of snacks — usually after having acquired a taste for food littered by campers. Hunt's goal that night was for her dogs to put him through a crash course in Woodland Comportment 101, concentrating on a key lesson: Hunting camps are not to be viewed as buffet tables. The next day, however, the peckish griz scrambled over to another camp about a mile away, where he proceeded to drag off an elk carcass that some outfitters, against all common sense, had left lying on the ground — thus reinforcing his association of people with food. The bear had to be destroyed. When Manley shot him through the heart the following day with a borrowed hunting rifle, it became the only time Hunt has ever lost a “problem bear” in Montana: Her equivalent of a juvenile reform program — repeatedly harassing ursine looters with dogs — had never failed to deflect them from people and their food.
Her methods may appear unusual, but as some wildlife experts across the West have finally begun to acknowledge, Hunt and her dogs get results. Last year the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks credited them with training 50 bears (34 blacks and 16 grizzlies) to eschew camps, roadsides, and ranches in and around Glacier National Park. When she did similar work in Yosemite the same year, the Tuolumne campground reported fewer black bear misdemeanors than at any point in the last 40 years. This summer, those achievements have made Hunt, 42, the toast of American bear biology. While her technique “doesn't revolutionize bear management,” says Stephen Herrero, one of the most renowned bear experts in North America, “it does offer a tremendous new tool. Moreover, it's a tool with soul. The big bonus is the dogs. They're interesting, they're effective, and they involve people in bear management.”
Raised in the Chilean Andes — her father is an exploration geologist — Hunt quit a 15-year career working with bears for government and non profit agencies in 1995 to establish the Wind River Bear Institute in Heber City, Utah. Since then, she has spent all of her savings, and $250,000 of her father's, trying to convince skeptical wildlife managers that she can save bears. The key to her strategy is her Karelians, a unique breed developed in Finland and Russia to pursue bruins. Stone-cold trackers, and seemingly devoid of fear, their superior quickness keeps them clear of crushing blows and snapping jaws. Hunt began looking for a Karelian in 1982. Eight years later, she found Cassie, then less than a month old, in Wyoming. Two years after that, she acquired a mate for Cassie, Rio, and embarked on a breeding program. The pair has produced 18 puppies, 14 of which now work with bears.
Together with Cassie, Rio, and their offspring, Hunt gradually forged what is now being recognized as a compelling alternative to established (and far more destructive) methods of dealing with pillaging bears. Traditionally, the solution has been either to kill such animals outright or to relocate them — which often only postpones the inevitable. Relocated grizzlies, for example, have a 20 percent annual mortality rate — an especially troubling number, given that less than 1,000 survive in the Lower 48. “If we can leave even one or two female grizzlies alive because of the dogs,” says Manley, a Montana state biologist who works with Hunt, “that's a tremendous stride forward.”
In April, Hunt and Manley presented the statistics on her work to 350 biologists at the International Bear Conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, creating something of a sensation — though not everyone was sold. Yosemite National Park, for example, did not invite her back this year. “If a bear has been coming into the campgrounds for months, weeks, or years, aversive conditioning is much more difficult,” says Steven Thompson, Yosemite's wildlife biologist. “We see Carrie's program as valuable, but it's a bit too early for us, mainly because we have such high concentrations of people that offer a large source of food to bears.”
Nevertheless, Hunt received a huge vote of confidence this summer when Glacier National Park, the U.S. Forest Service, and the state of Montana hired her to spend the entire field season, from May to November, allowing her Karelians to do what they do best: train bears. She's also finally getting some financial help, in the form of a $10,000-a-month budget. Charles Jonkel, who guided Hunt through her master's degree in wildlife biology at the University of Montana, thinks this endorsement may be the beginning of new trend in bear management. “One by one, the people involved in deterrent work, including me, just said piss on it and walked away because we couldn't get agencies to help,” he says. “But not Carrie. She hung in there. And now it's coming together. People are finally listening.”