Training Bears to Stay Away

Hometown Heroes, People
on April 22, 2001

Good! Bark at that bear! Get out of here, bear! shouts Carrie Hunt as she and her team of shouting humans and barking dogs charge the 2-year-old grizzly sow.

The bear had been enjoying a leisurely huckleberry lunch but retreats in the face of the ruckuslumbering away up the ski hill, with Hunt and the others in hot pursuit. The sow, known to Carrie as Easy, had ventured down to the ski area before, and this time Hunt wanted to be sure it didnt come back.

Hunt, 46, of Heber City, Utah (pop. 5,299), came up with the idea of relocating grizzlies using husky-type dogs called Karelian bear dogs in 1982 after she saw ranchers use them successfully to keep bears away from their cattle and sheep herds. Bred for centuries to hunt black bears and polar bears in Russia and Finland, the dogs never backed down from a bear. Why, she wondered, couldnt they be used to keep problem grizzlies away from civilizationbehavior which, all too often, sentenced the bear to death?

Her fathers work as a field geologist took the family to northern Chile for most of her childhood, but they moved to Heber City when she was 11. Three years earlier, her life had changed.

I read the jungle books. I wanted to be like Mowgli, the little boy who could talk to animals and understand them, she says. She had to make do with training the family mutts until she was 11, when her parents bought her a skittish Morgan mare.

Once, she ran me across a four-lane highway, Hunt recalls. Eventually, they won ribbons at horse shows. Belindo empowered me, she says. My teachers told me I couldnt have a pet that was a show horse (thinking it might be too skittish or high strung), but we proved them wrong. She taught me to follow my heart.

Hunt earned a masters degree in wildlife biology, one of only four women in her class, and in 1991 brought her first Karelian from Finland. Even as a tiny puppy, Cassie loved bossing bears around, Hunt says. She showed me the idea of bear-shepherding could work.

Carrie starts a dog with basic obedience training, teaches it to track, then puts it on a team with more experienced dogs.

Hunts programthe only one in the United Stateshas a nearly 100 percent success rate; with only two bears, out of dozens shes worked with, failing to learn their lessons. One had to be put down; the other was moved to a wildlife refuge. Over the last four years, Hunt has worked with bears in Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier National parks. For the last two years, she has concentrated on the Flathead River area in northern Montana and Alberta, Canada. The old method of relocating bears hasnt worked, she says, referring to the once-common practice of sedating, and then physically moving bears out of an area. They almost always come back, and they have to be put down.

Tim Manley, of Montanas Fish Wildlife and Parks Department and one of Hunts fellow bear managers, talks about a pair of grizzly cubs that began sleeping on porches and loitering on the streets of Whitefish, Mont., (pop. 5,793). The furry delinquents apparently were ready to step up to big-time marauding of garbage cans and suchwhich could have placed people in danger. They seemed hopeless, Manley says. But we worked them, and we havent seen them since. From all indications, theyre still alive and not causing problems.

In the field, Hunt, Manley, and two other bear managers restrain four dogs on 7-foot leashes, and one person shoots the bear with rubber bullets, which sting but dont injure. Were teaching these bears that were the dominant bear, and this is our space, Hunt says.

Outside of bear season when the bruins are most active, which is May to November, she trains 19 Karelians at the Wind River Bear Institute in Heber City and speaks to school children about the dangers of leaving bird feeders, animal carcasses, and garbage cans where bears can get to them. Subsisting for years on donations, she was delighted last year when the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks agreed to help fund her program. Spence Hegstad, foundation liaison for Montana FWP, shakes his head when asked about Hunt.

Its amazing. Heres this little five-foot-something gal with these smallish dogs, standing up to grizzlies. But her work is changing the world.