A Karelian Bear Dog and its handler search for polar bear dens.

© Wes Larson

3/18/2013 5:57:11 PM

Dogs, Dens, and the Wild


It may be strange to truly admire a dog, but that’s what I found myself doing this last week. BJ Kirschhoffer and I had the opportunity to follow polar bear management experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a trip to polar bear dens with their Karelian Bear Dogs, Kavik and Baloo. The experience was pretty eye-opening.

Once the dogs are off their leashes, they basically run around the snow bank and use their powerful sense of smell to locate where the bear dens may be. A female polar bear with cubs is basically just a big ball of fragrant bear lying under about a meter of snow. That snow is enough to mask their scent from our human noses, but Kavik and Baloo have incredible sniffers that lead them right to the den.

After finding a den, the dogs start doing things that even the most stalwart of wildlife biologists wouldn’t think of doing. They jump, bark, and even dig. Just a few feet underneath them is a 600-pound carnivore that has not eaten a thing in months, and these brave pups are doing their best to dig it up! Luckily, the professionals that handle the bear dogs can instantly recognize when they have located a den, and they stop the dogs from digging too deep and getting a face full of grumpy polar bear. It was incredible to see them in action.

We are wrapping up our first trip to the Arctic this year, and we have had a lot of success and some pretty amazing experiences. We got to see the northern lights dance around a full moon over the frozen Arctic Ocean. We saw foxes, caribou, and other northern wildlife that stick around for the frigid winter. And, most importantly, we had the ability to collect data that can help maintain the Alaskan Arctic Coast as a denning area for female polar bears.

People often ask me why I see such value in polar bears. While they are incredibly charismatic animals, I think my answer actually relates much more to what polar bears represent than the actual creatures themselves. Polar bears are evolutionary champions, and most bear species have evolved over millions of years to subsist on resources that are only produced by healthy ecosystems. In that way, they are a symbol of wilderness and of the wild, productive ecosystem in which they thrive. So, protecting bears means protecting wilderness, and the wild places on this earth are vital to the health and happiness of humans. That’s my answer, and why I think polar bear conservation is important.

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