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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yellowstone's Bear-Herding Dogs

Air Date: Week of

Despite Yellowstone Park's best efforts to keep campers' food from tempting bears, some visitors leave their food out and encourage bears to mingle with humans. Robin White reports on a new program with specially trained dogs from Finland that seeks to set boundaries for tourist territories to become bear-free zones.


CURWOOD: This summer a group of young boys camping with their leaders in Yosemite National Park became frightened and stoned to death a bear that had wandered into their campsite. The incident was a sad example of the worst that can happen when bears lose their natural suspicions of humans and become addicted to the food scraps that people leave around in the wilderness. In an attempt to make bears less willing to go near humans, Yosemite officials have embarked on an unusual program that, as Robin White reports, uses that ancient rival of the bear, the dog.

WHITE: Perched at eight-and-a-half thousand feet, Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows Campground is too high to be natural black bear habitat. But bears come here anyway, attracted by food left out by humans.

MAN: We're around the fire, and the bear was right here. That's about what, 30 or 40 feet away from the campfire. And we looked up and heard a strange noise, and someone said, "There's the bear," and it was at 40 feet away and it had its muzzle up on the table. And we found a mutilated carrot the next morning.

WHITE: Aside from the carrot, these campers had their food properly stored in a bear-proof box. Yosemite has placed the steel boxes in every camp site at a cost of a million dollars. But teaching thousands of campers to keep food stored at all times is a mammoth task. Ranger Ginger Burley says some campers even leave food out deliberately.

BURLEY: Johnny wants to see a bear and so his dad sort of smilingly leaves a can of bacon grease by the tree. And it doesn't take many of those kinds of rewards. And there aren't enough rangers to check every campsite every night.

WHITE: Bears foraging for food at campsites are more than just a nuisance. They do $250,000 of property damage in Yosemite each year. Now the Park Service is trying a new experiment to keep bears and humans apart.

(Ambient conversation)

WHITE: It's evening in the campground and the smells of outdoor cooking fill the air. A group of campers draws close to their blue smoke fire. Nearby, work is just starting for Carrie Hunt and her 3 black and white Corellian bear dogs.

HUNT: Duffy, come! Great! Great! Cassie, let's find the bear. Reo, let's find the bear. Duffy, let's find the bear.

WHITE: A bear biologist from Utah, Hunt has developed methods to teach bears to stay away from humans. She invented a red pepper spray which is supposed to stop a charging bear and recently she's been working with Corellian bear dogs. Corellians are a bit smaller than a husky and have black masks like raccoons. They're specially bred in Finland to be friendly to humans but aggressive to bears.

HUNT: This whole concept of aversive conditioning and repellents and deterrents works on the premise that bears have evolved a social hierarchy where the most dominant bears get to go where they want when they want and the less dominant bears have to work around that. And so I figured that we could find things that would make us, the humans, the big bear, that our places and where we are could be places that bears would learn you don't go to.

WHITE: Each night Hunt runs the dogs through the campground with help from an off-duty ranger and the volunteer campground host.

HUNT: Jim, you want to go on up, like, through group? Maybe we'll -- and then up in the horse cabin?

JIM: Yeah, because --

WHITE: It doesn't take long for the dogs to find the trail of a bear. They strain at their leashes, circling through campsites with surprised campers cheering the chase.

(Panting dogs, ambient voices)

WHITE: Then the runners catch sight of the blue shine of a bear's eyes in their flashlights as it turns to look at them. The bear is a small tan-colored adult. It bolts up a tree and the dogs surround the base.

(Hunt: "Good! Good!" Dogs bark. "Good dog!")

WHITE: Hunt pulls the dogs back and waits.

HUNT: I know. I know.

(Dogs pant)

HUNT: Same bear. She came right back into where she'd just gotten food before we spooked her out. And so the important thing is to, you know, get her -- I mean the best thing we could do tonight is to get her every time she comes in, so that she learns that she's going to be hassled every time she comes into the campground.

JIM: Right.

(Dogs pant)

WHITE: The bear appears content to spend the night in the tree, so after waiting Hunt moves the dogs on to chase another bear out of the campground. Hunt says she'd like to step up her aversive conditioning by using rubber bullets to teach bears a more painful lesson. Rubber bullets haven't been authorized by the park and using them may seem cruel, but biologist Steve Thompson, who oversees the bear dog program, says the park has to kill up to 4 bears a year because they grow too aggressive with campers.

THOMPSON: Our goal is not to keep the bears happy. Our goal is to keep them natural. I'm sure that a bear that has his head in an ice chest is a happy bear, but yet that's a bear that's on the road to destruction. So when we are chasing him out of the campgrounds, when we're removing unnatural human food sources, when we're hitting him with rubber bullets, that bear immediately is an unhappy bear, but ultimately it's a bear that's going to live longer than one that's foraging in a campground and isn't being kept from doing that.

WHITE: According to Thompson the bear dog program saved three bears' lives this year. A sow with two cubs was becoming so aggressive that all three were destined to be killed by lethal injection. Due to the dogs the bear has become more intimidated and the family's had a reprieve. The bear dog program is also a huge success with the public. Thompson expects that if funds can be found it will be extended next year into other regions of the park. For Living on Earth I'm Robin White at Yosemite National Park.

CHILD: He stand on the table.

MAN: Really. This table here?


MAN: Wow, the bear stood on the table. Wow.

CHILD: And he ate a carrot.



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