The presence of bears near a wildland fire in Alaska is nothing new to the firefighting community, but the use of professionally trained Karelian bear dogs was a first, nationwide, on the Isom Creek Fire (#187), located south of the Yukon River and along the Dalton Highway, during June, 2020. Safety personnel piloted the use of the Karelian bear dogs and their handler as a means to mitigate bear intrusions into fire camps and other areas and it proved to be a successful tactic for mitigating human-bear conflict.
While standards, such as keeping a clean camp, are critical to keeping bears away, there are always those curious animals that come around despite best practices. Over the years, firefighters have resorted to many creative ways to keep bears out of camp and away from people, such as leaving a radio on in camp even once a crew is on the fireline so that the chatter deters curious visitors. The Isom Creek Fire has demonstrated the value that Karelian bear dogs have in a wildland fire situation to further be proactive in keeping an area free of bears and, as a result, discourage a bear from becoming a nuisance.
Nils Pedersen, born and raised in Fairbanks, began working with the Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI) in Florence, Montana, in 2011 as the trainer and handler of Soledad to address human-bear conflict issues. Pedersen now serves as the Director of the WRBI from Fairbanks and he and his Karelian Bear dogs, Soledad and Rio, just completed their very first wildland fire assignment.
To perform their firefighting duties, these canine resources were walked on a leash or would ride in a truck to patrol for the scent of a bear. Once they caught the familiar scent, the dogs would bark – a bark that would become stronger with the intensity of the scent they were following. Pedersen would conduct multiple passes when the dogs identified a new scent so that he could determine if a bear might be in a location that would require it to be pushed out and away from the area. One of their primary duties was to do a sweep around a spike camp in the early morning before people were awake and moving about in order to prevent surprise encounters. If a bear was in the vicinity, Pedersen, Soledad and Rio would take action to shepherd it away.
Depending on the weather conditions, Karelian bear dogs can pick up a scent from about half a mile away and have been known to sniff out a bear from a vehicle moving 60 mph. These dogs have demonstrated the ability to stay in pursuit of a bear for 26 kilometers. When the dogs indicated interest in an area, Pedersen would circle back to that spot several minutes later, doing passes over time, to determine if the scent was becoming stronger if the bear wasn’t already visible. Depending on the dog’s response, Pedersen, Soledad and Rio would then track the bear and the dogs would shepherd it in a direction most advantageous to both bear and people.
According to Pedersen, the WRBI Karelian bear dogs are carefully selected as pups to determine which ones have the strongest natural instincts, in addition to the willingness to be trained. The puppies that show the best working aptitude are placed in the training pool for Wildlife K-9 (WK-9) certification. It can take as much as four years for a Karelian bear dog to become a fully trained WK-9. Training and field test requirements include: range commands, tracking, scent detection, conflict, firearms, strike, recall and K-9 Good Citizen training. The WK-9s are worked in pairs to enhance the safety and effectiveness of the handler/WK-9 team. Since 1996, the WRBI has worked to provide non-lethal solutions to human-bear conflict issues. Their mission is to reduce human-caused bear mortality and human-wildlife conflict worldwide. WRBI places dogs with wildlife officers and biologists that are working for state and federal agencies to establish WK-9 programs. So far, there are programs in Washington, Montana, Alaska, Canada and Japan.
Beyond the work that Soledad and Rio performed, Pedersen also served as an integral part of the operation. The dogs are never used apart from the handler, who is often a wildlife biologist or wildlife officer. Pedersen serves as the director of the WRBI, holds a masters degree in Wildlife Biology and Conservation, and is a specialist in human-bear conflict. Pedersen was a very knowledgeable resource to have on the Isom Creek Fire in regard to bear behavior and attractant management. Through his education, work and experience, he is well versed in a range of bear deterrent mechanisms and campsite selection. Pedersen was able to educate personnel on how to set up camp in a way this is naturally less attractive to bears (rather than those areas that are in bear-loving vegetation and along game trails, etc.) He has a wealth of knowledge in bear behavior, family units, aversive conditioning and many other topics. Pair the handler with the dogs and you have the ultimate team.
While this concept of using Karelian bear dogs on a wildland fire incident is new, the concept is a natural fit. The Isom Creek Fire demonstrated the expanding opportunities that this strategy might provide in safety for not only the fire community, but also the bears themselves. It was also an exciting ride for Pedersen, Soledad and Rio as the dogs took their first ever helicopter ride to be shuttled to spike camps and remote locations around the fire to be available where needed. These dogs have incredible discipline and are highly trained, in partnership with their handlers. Together, they live for this type of work and while they may not carry K-9 red cards yet, the success of this assignment very much proved the value of integrating them into the operation.
Video clips of the dogs are posted on the BLM Alaska Fire Service Flickr site Click on window for video clips on Flickr.