Service dogs are like ‘gold’ for Washington state wildlife officers

When a potentially injured bear was reported near the Klahanie Shopping Center in Issaquah recently, Fish and Wildlife officers responded within about 10 minutes. A short 15 minutes after arriving, Officer Bruce Richards was able to give the all-clear. The bear had been in the greenbelt not far from the stores and daycare, but was no longer in the immediate area.

  • Friday, July 18, 2008 8:00am
  • News
Karelian bear dog Mishka barks at a bear during a hard release in the Cascade Mountains. Officer Bruce Richards is obscured by the door of the trap.

Karelian bear dog Mishka barks at a bear during a hard release in the Cascade Mountains. Officer Bruce Richards is obscured by the door of the trap.

When a potentially injured bear was reported near the Klahanie Shopping Center in Issaquah recently, Fish and Wildlife officers responded within about 10 minutes.

A short 15 minutes after arriving, Officer Bruce Richards was able to give the all-clear. The bear had been in the greenbelt not far from the stores and daycare, but was no longer in the immediate area. Richards felt comfortable making that declaration so quickly because of the help of Mishka, a wildlife service dog.

Trained from birth to track and “shepherd” bears, Karelian bear dogs like 5-year-old Mishka are an unquestioned boon to wildlife enforcement, officers say.

“That dog is gold,” Officer Chris Moszeter said. “In the bear world, having a dog like that can let us know where the bear is before we ever see it.”

The case at the Issaquah QFC, when Mishka quickly determined that the bear had left the area, is just one of countless examples of the dog effectively tracking bears throughout the Eastside and South King County in recent years. Tracking away from the shopping center, Mishka helped the officers eventually spot the bear a few blocks away, but it got away and hasn’t caused any further problems. The department has had about three bear cases per week for the past month or so, most recently including several up near Mount Baker, one in Preston/Fall City, two in Issaquah and Sammamish, two in the Maple Valley area, and five in the Covington area.

While hounds have been used by the department of Fish and Wildlife for years on a volunteer basis — more so on cougar cases than for bears — most officers still don’t have regular access to wildlife service dogs trained specifically for use in enforcement. Before Mishka’s time, Richards would occasionally even use his family’s yellow lab, usually referred to simply as “Yellow Dog,” to track bear and cougars.

“It became very evident that having a dog would be a clear plus,” Richards said. And so, even without specialized training, Yellow Dog was able to assist on a number of cases.

When Fish and Wildlife biologist and large carnivore specialist Rocky Spencer heard about Karelian bear dogs being used successfully in Montana and Alberta, Canada, he was immediately interested in bringing one to Western Washington.

“It’s so efficient to have a dog that you could carry with you,” Richards explained. “Rocky saw the advantage. We both did.”

So, Spencer went out and solicited donations to cover the cost of purchasing Mishka, then raised him at home and on the job. Mishka helped out on whatever Spencer was studying, tracking or trapping — primarily cougar but some bears as well.

“When Rocky got Mishka, it turned him from an incredible biologist into an incredible team, because Rocky knew everything that you needed to know about cougars and bears,” said Chris Felstad, who recently retired as a commander with the Issaquah Police Department and had known Spencer for about 25 years both professionally and as a friend.

“He was 10 times better when Mishka was with him,” Felstad said. “I think we as police and law enforcement are just realizing that dogs are not just an attack tool.”

He recounted a tale about Mishka facing off with a very large bear in the Issaquah Highlands while he and Spencer looked on.

“Mishka was warning the bear off from Rocky, and Rocky was standing very calmly loading his dart gun, knowing that Mishka would protect him,” Felstad said. “It was incredible watching the two of them together. They worked together to solve the problem.”

Last fall, Spencer was accidentally killed by the rotating blades of a helicopter during a relocation project. He not only worked closely with Mishka and Richards, he was known by animal lovers, researchers, police and many others throughout the state.

“After Rocky’s tragic death, ‘What are we gonna do with Mishka?’ was a big question,” said Capt. Bill Hebner, a regional supervisor in the department’s Mill Creek office. The problem was that Spencer was one of only two carnivore specialists in Fish and Wildlife’s biology arm, and Spencer’s counterpart on the east side of the mountains began working with another Karelian bear dog shortly after Spencer got Mishka. So, officials in the enforcement program here decided to take Mishka on in a pilot-project capacity, and Richards became the dog’s new handler.

“We said, let’s see what happens after a year and if it works well, make it permanent and even look at expanding it,” Hebner said. “He’s been such a benefit, I couldn’t imagine anyone saying we should give him back.”

In a time when all types of government budgets are tight — Fish and Wildlife has not been able to fill Spencer’s position, Hebner said — Mishka has earned his keep many times over.

“Mishka brings a lot to the table,” he said. “He’s saved us countless hours in finding bears and helped with heard releases.”

Bear dogs are another ‘tool’ in the toolbox

While trapping and relocating a bear is not ideal — officers would prefer to leave the animals in their natural habitat if they can — it is sometimes necessary. Together, Richards and Spencer pioneered the department’s methods for trapping and relocating bears and cougars. They developed a net that can be placed at the base of a tree to catch a bear or cougar that is treed and needs to be caught. Richards recently came up with a new kind of bear trap similar to the wire cages used to trap raccoons, which has already been used with great success on bears that won’t go into the culvert-style traps.

Mishka is yet another tool available to the officers.

Fish and Wildlife officers are skilled at tracking bears, but can still sometimes search for hours and not find a bear.

“The bear dog is nice because it’s more of a surgical process. You can use the dog to track it, trap it or tree it,” Moszeter said. “It’s just more precise.”

Historically, Karelian bear dogs are a primitive breed that were bred in Finland and Russia for hunting moose, bear, geese, lynx and other big game. In 1982, wildlife biologist Carrie Hunt became interested in finding a type of dog to assist in her work with bears. In 1995, she founded the Wind River Bear Institute in Montana, and began breeding and training the dogs. The institute offers public education about bears, because Hunt believes preventing conflicts between bears and humans will be the key to success for future generations. The institute also teaches the handlers of their dogs a technique that Hunt developed called “Bear Shepherding” to safely and effectively handle bears. They raise one litter of pups each year, and only a few dogs from each litter have the right mix to stand up to a bear and be trained for use as wildlife service dogs. Hunt said she places them very meticulously and carefully, “like diamonds.” Although she has a waiting list of prospective owners, Hunt wants to see the Washington program expanded and has offered state officials two pups from this fall’s litter.

“It doesn’t get much better than working with another species to communicate with an animal that is in trouble,” she said. “The dogs themselves act as ambassadors.”

The program is funded one-third through government contracts and two-thirds through private donations. Each year, they hang on by a thread.

“Together, we have been able to work 200 to 300 bear actions per year for 13 years — mostly grizzlies and many females with young,” said Hunt, who works throughout Glacier National Park and the North Cascades National Park, among other places. “We have never, ever had a dog hurt, bear hurt or a person hurt.”

In addition to Mishka and other Karelian bear dogs used by officials, ranchers and others in the United States and Canada, Hunt has placed dogs throughout the country and as far away as Japan.

“These dogs are paving the way for a nonlethal way for working with wildlife,” Hunt said. “Talk about canine heros.”

Watching Mishka at work

After trapping a bear in Fall City last week that had busted into a garage to get to some garbage, officers tranquilized the estimated 9-year-old, 200-pound female bear and gave her a check-up. Then, before taking the bear for a long drive up into the Cascade Mountains, officers gave the bear a shot of reversal so that she would be awake and ready for release into the wild when they arrived.

The older a bear is, the more homing instinct they seem to have.

“This bear, no matter where we put it, is going to try to find its way home,” Richards said. “If I really want to do it, I have to do it right. We’ll do it for the bear.”

The officers arranged the trap so that the bear would come out and see their trucks, a fire pit, Mishka and the officers. The idea is to show the bear a few things she may associate with humans, and hopefully re-instill a fear of humans and dogs.

While they prepared to release the bear, Mishka barked relentlessly outside the large, steel trap. When he didn’t get enough response from the bear inside, he jumped up to bark louder and closer to the grate-covered window in the trap door. Feeling a bit groggy from the tranquilizer and reversal drug, the bear eventually snarled back at Mishka.

“Get that bear, Mishka!” Richards encouraged him.

As soon as Moszeter opened the trap door, the bear poked her nose out, jumped down and, in a flurry of confusion, yelling, barking and beanbag shots, lumbered quickly out and away into the dense forest. After giving the bear a moment’s head start, Richards unclipped Mishka from his leash and let him give chase. Within seconds, he could tell from Mishka’s bark that the dog was facing off with the bear. He quickly whistled Mishka back.

“Good dog, Mishka,” Richards and Moszeter praised him.

As hard releases go, that one was picture-perfect, the officers said.

“I figure this is what the people of the state of Washington would want,” Richards said. “Do it once, and do it right. I think that’s what we did today. Now, it’s up to the bear.”




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