Dogs put to work in Girdwood in attempt to reduce bear conflicts with residents

As Nils Pedersen rounds a corner in Girdwood in his dusty white pickup, an explosion of barks erupts from his three Karelian bear dogs in back.

And there it is — a black bear crossing a residential street and wandering into a yard.

The dogs are trained to pick up the scent of bears and alert Pedersen, their handler. Through a variety of tactics, he and the dogs work as a team to train bears to leave areas where they may become problematic for people.

The goal, said Pedersen, who lives in Fairbanks, is to reduce the chances that a bear will be killed because it’s reliant on trash for its next meal or because it has become too comfortable around people.

Pedersen came to town early this bear season as a proactive step in bear management, Girdwood Bear Aware founder Alayna DuPont said. The group formed several years ago to address bear and human conflicts in Girdwood, where response times for nuisance bear reports are lengthy because many responding agencies are located out of town.

Pedersen’s skills were first brought to Girdwood last year, during a summer with an exceptionally high number of bear conflicts. Girdwood Bear Aware contracted with the Wind River Bear Institute to bring Pedersen to manage bears through a permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

DuPont said many residents felt exasperated by last summer’s bear conflicts, but Pedersen’s work helped mitigate conflicts and afterward, “we weren’t really experiencing quite as much mayhem.”

“It was really apparent that people could see there’s something being done,” she said. “There is a response that can happen — we don’t just need to get out our shotguns and take care of this.”

This year, Pedersen patrolled the streets for more than a week to monitor bear activity and move bears away from homes and into the forested edges of the Chugach Mountains.

Being effective at moving bears requires three things: Finding them — “these bears like to be sneaky,” Pedersen said — chasing them and “touching” them.

When the dogs bark from Pedersen’s truck, bears aren’t scared. They’re mostly annoyed. The repeated barking is often enough to push them away from an area, a barrier that can redirect bears toward the outskirts of town.

If a bear is causing problems or the barking hasn’t seemed to affect the bear, Pedersen will work with the dogs on the ground. But usually the barking is enough to move the bear, he said.

The dogs work almost exclusively on leash, Pedersen said. They can track bears that would otherwise be difficult to see from the road. It’s important not to scare or traumatize a bear, he said, but walking toward the animal with the leashed dogs can tell it that it needs to leave.

“We’re applying some pressure, letting the bears make choices, letting them know this is (a) real easy way to go and this is the hard way to go,” Pedersen said. “And letting them make those decisions at bear speed. We don’t want bears running through the community scared for their lives. They need to keep moving and they need to ultimately exit.”

A final tactic, Pedersen said, is touch. He does that by hitting the bears with a slingshot, paintball or even rubber bullets when he’s in locations more remote than Girdwood.

“I say touch them because it’s not about pain or hitting them harder,” Pedersen said. “I don’t think they learn a whole lot from that. It’s more about the discomfort of contact, them realizing that we can actually touch you, so you better keep moving.”

The work Pedersen does isn’t an exact science. Much of it is based on his relationship with his dogs — trusting their instincts and understanding what they’re trying to communicate. By now, Pedersen said, he can differentiate between his dogs’ barks and generally tell what different noises mean.

Soledad, an 11-year-old female, has a loud and low bark. Rio, now 8, sounds raspy and often has a leaky whine of excitement while he works. And Mardy, their 4-year-old pup, has a sharp bark that mimics a seal. When she smells a bear, she lets out a quick succession of distinctive yips.

The dogs know it’s time to work when Pedersen slips on their purple “Wildlife K-9″ harnesses, he said. But in their downtime, the dogs live with Pedersen in Fairbanks, where he said their only job is “to be my little buddies.”

Pedersen has been working with Karelian bear dogs for nearly a decade. He grew up in Fairbanks but moved to Montana, where he wound up working for the Wind River Bear Institute and started training with the breed for wildlife management. He moved back to Fairbanks to work on a master’s degree and eventually transitioned to becoming director of Wind River Bear Institute, where he works full time.

Historically, the midsized black-and-white dogs were used for big-game hunting. The breed today is used across the country for managing bears, cougars and other large animals. Several national parks have utilized the dogs, including Denali.

The breed is aggressive and fearless toward wildlife but friendly and affectionate toward people, Pedersen said. Because the dogs are so well-liked, Pedersen said, they can act as a bridge to talking with the public about bear management, often a contentious topic in Alaska.

“I think there’s always gonna be folks that have opinions,” Pedersen said. “And that’s kind of the thing working with bears, and I feel like a lot of different kinds of wildlife, but it seems like especially with that charismatic wildlife — everyone’s an expert.”

Some people think all bears that wander into human-occupied spaces should be shot and killed. Some think the bears should be left alone, and others believe they should be feeding the wild animals. The perspectives are often emotionally charged, Pedersen said.

While shooting every bear is not the answer, Pedersen says, it’s sometimes necessary.

“Once they become food conditioned like a lot of these are, they have a learned association between people and food,” he said. “And when they do that, they start doing stuff that we don’t like — they damage people’s property or people have the perception that they’re threatening. And they can be threatening. ...

“I really encourage people to think, when bears do have to be killed, ‘Yeah, that’s sad, but it’s an opportunity now for us to make sure that doesn’t happen again,’ ” Pedersen said.

Pedersen said the work he and his dogs do is valuable for managing bears, but in the end it will only work if the community is willing to participate. The main goal when he talks to people, Pedersen said, is to teach them how important it is to use bear-resistant trash cans, secure their garbage and remove other attractants, like bird feeders and seed.

“If there’s garbage everywhere and all kinds of good stuff for them to be eating, you’re not going to convince them to do other things,” he said.

Part of the problem in Girdwood during the last few years is the efficacy of the bear-resistant cans. The cans provided by the waste company that services Girdwood failed testing this year, and Pedersen said bears have learned that if they knock the container onto its side, it’s easy to pop the lid off and access trash.

Now, Pedersen is asking Girdwood residents to secure their trash bin to a tree or structure to keep it upright if it can’t be stored. It’s another step to ask and one more thing to convince someone to do, but Pedersen said that’s just part of the job.

And he realizes how important public education is to wildlife management.

“The dogs have a lot of appeal, no matter which end of the spectrum you’re on,” he said. “And ultimately that’s the goal — figuring out what matters to people, what really matters to them, and trying to help.”

As he drove through the streets of Girdwood last Wednesday, a group of people gathered at a construction site hollered toward him: “Are you the bear guy?”

“I guess I am,” Pedersen said as he stopped the truck, opened the back and offered a handful of treats to the group to dole out to the dogs as they petted them.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the dogs’ title on their harnesses. They are wildlife K-9s.