Man's best friend is also turning out to be the best pal a bear ever had.
In an effort to curb conflict between humans and bears in the West, biologist Carrie Hunt is using a specially bred dog, the Karelian bear dog, to teach grizzly and black bears that raiding campsites and posing for the camera is not acceptable behavior.
As more and more visitors head to wilderness parks for recreation and people build homes farther into bear territory, the chances of encounters between humans and bears are growing.
In the past, a bear that wandered into a campground or otherwise disrupted human activity was tracked by authorities and relocated far from visitors. But the bear usually returned, sometimes more determined in its scavenging than before, and was then euthanized.
This was a heartache all around, as the bears are endangered, both feared and revered by visitors, and considered essential by biologists to the integrity of an ever-diminishing wilderness.
Enter Carrie Hunt. After 20 years in the field with bears -- she came up with the idea of pepper spray as a deterrent that's now on all backcountry equipment lists -- she's developed a program to teach bears to react to humans as they would to a more dominant bear.
By using the animals' natural survival instincts, she is able to turn them away from humans -- and the edible treats they often carry -- and send the bears back into the woods.
"The key is that we are teaching bears by working with their minds and using the dogs as tools," said Hunt, who works with up to 70 bears a year in Montana, Washington and Canada.
The aversion training combines chasing problem bears with the dogs, shooting them with bean-bag pellets, yelling at them and then, if they leave, rewarding them by hushing the dogs and lowering the guns.
Although she uses her dogs in up to 300 field trips each year, Hunt has never had one injured. They are used to track bears and turn on them if they approach; find objects that bears have dragged off; warn handlers if a bear is in the area; and locate dead and orphaned bears. They do their work both on- and off-leash, depending on the locale.
Native to Finland and western Russia, these black and white, Siberian husky-like dogs have been bred for centuries to hunt and tree bears. They are intelligent, independent and fearless, and their strong bark is particularly effective in getting the bears' attention.
Hunt raises her own dogs. She breeds one litter a year and "places them like diamonds," as they are feisty, demand a lot of training time and do not make good family pets. Indeed, Hunt says, wildlife officials who work with bears in the backcountry, and not individual households, are best suited as masters of these headstrong animals.
Tim Manley is one of them. A grizzly bear management specialist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Manley has worked with Hunt since 1995 to curb bear encounters in and around Glacier National Park.
Visitors who don't store their food in bear-proof containers and people who try to get as close as they dare to bears foraging along roadsides have essentially trained bears to lose their wariness toward humans, he said.
That leads to raids on food left sitting in the back seats of cars, in tent sites and even in seemingly secure cabins. But since Hunt was contracted to work in and around the park, there have been fewer problems, Manley said.
"We are saving more bears than we have to put down," he said. "In 1998 we had a bad food problem and worked a lot of bears. If we hadn't contracted with Carrie, we would have removed an additional 14 grizzlies. We ended up removing three."
Hunt spends a lot of time giving demonstrations to parks and wilderness personnel and the general public. Her techniques are being considered to help save tigers and elephants in the wild. In this country, the managers of the wolf re-introduction programs have asked for her help.
She travels tirelessly, a one-woman show operating on a shoestring. She is anxious to train others but first needs the funding. That may eventually happen: The state of Montana has proposed establishing a foundation to endow her program, she said.
Meanwhile, Hunt's message is clear: Leaving pet food, birdseed, deer feed and dog food where a bear can get at it is the single greatest threat to its life. A bear that associates people with food is a problem bear. and a problem bear more often than not is eventually a dead bear.
"All I'm trying to do is give the bear a chance to learn what the rules are," she said.