Karelian bear dogs help sniff out polar bear dens

© Wes Larson

3/13/2013 1:14:24 PM

Den-Sniffing Dogs

By BJ Kirschhoffer, Director of Field Operations

Wes Larson and I just had the most exciting opportunity! The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is up in our neighborhood looking for polar bear dens with dogs. I’ve always said the North Slope needs a few therapy dogs roaming around the camps for people to pet. The only way to entertain yourself after work is by eating, watching TV, going to the gym, playing pool, or working more. Typically we choose the first and last of the options, although I have been known to lose a game or two of pool to Dr. Tom Smith. Being dog lovers, we jumped at the opportunity to see a special breed of animal do the work they were bred for.

We met the FWS just after lunch and parked our snow machines near their truck, trailer, and Haglund (a Swedish track vehicle permitted to cross the tundra). As the FWS personal prepared their gear, Wes and I met the den-detecting Karelian bear dogs. The male and female pair, named Kavik and Baloo, were a beautiful black and white color combination. Their thick stiff fur looked warm and their generally friendly presence was very attractive. From the moment both dogs jumped out of the truck they looked alert and ready for work, although they did allow us to pet them for a moment. Karelian bear dogs are known for their fearlessness around bears and their ability to sniff out animals. I imagine the fearless part comes in handy when working with polar bears

The group loaded up and we headed east toward the denning habitat to look for denning female bears under the snow. The distances we were about to cover were too great for the dogs to run, so they rode inside the Haglund while the remainder of the crew rode snow machines in the cold. I guess it pays to be a highly trained K-9. The first location was a human-made gravel pile more than 25 feet tall. A 25-foot pile does not sound like much, but in an area that’s almost totally flat, it looks like a mountain.

Upon arrival, one of the FWS employees circumnavigates the area to ensure there are no open dens, and then signals for the others to proceed. Once the coast is clear, the dogs are let out of the vehicle and taken to an area downwind and instructed to walk along the drift, sniffing out denning bears. If the dogs smell anything, they alert the crew by digging lightly at the snow. If the dog is very excited, the digging may be accompanied with a short bark.

The dogs started on the southwest side of the gravel pile, working their way upwind noses to the snow. Near the end of pile they began to walk toward the top. One dog alerted the crew—a good sign a polar bear family could be under the snow.

The handlers then took the dogs to the northeast side and had them search the drift again. This time they were upwind of the location where the dog had alerted them just moments before. After walking up toward the top, both dogs again alerted by digging in the snow. The older one even let out a bark. All of this is good evidence a polar bear could be denning with her cubs up to one meter or more under this pile of snow.

Wes and I took the opportunity to set up one of our Maternal Den Study cameras on this location, fixed and focused on the place the dogs had indicated. We are hoping this location will prove to have a polar bear family denning below and that our electronic equipment will capture footage of the bears when they emerge. The FWS repeated the process of searching on two more islands off the coast in much the same manner as described above.

Both Wes and I want to thank the FWS for inviting us along to see how this process works. Also thanks Kavik and Baloo for your hard work on the ice!

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