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Canine Greeting Turns Bears Away

Wildlife: Trained dogs are used at a private camp to drive the larger creatures from human habitat and safely back into the forest.

September 02, 2002|DEBORAH SULLIVAN BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FOREST FALLS, Calif. — The team of dogs yapped and barked, straining at their leashes as they clambered toward the dining hall at Forest Home camp, tucked in a wooded canyon in the San Bernardino Mountains. A chewed up soda cup offered a sign of their quarry: a black bear, following the scent of food.

The Karelian bear dogs and their handlers with the Utah-based Wind River Bear Institute were guiding camp officials through an exercise in bear shepherding, a method of rousting bears from human habitat and back into the wild.

The strategy is designed to protect campers from the animals, and to protect the animals from their own bad habits of food thieving and dumpster diving, which can lead to death. "Tuffy, you got anything? Fancy, you got anything?" Wind River's director, biologist Carrie Hunt, called to the five surging dogs. But their howls died down, signaling a cold trail.

Hours into their rounds, it was the first night in a week that the pack had turned up no ursine intruders. Yet the failure to spot a bear may have suggested the success of the patrols. The bears may be learning they're not welcome at the Christian camp, which has operated for more than 60 years in Forest Falls at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains.

"We teach the bears that if they're in a developed site, they're going to be asked to leave," Hunt said. "And if they leave, all goes well. And if not, we're going to be barking and yelling ... at them."

Bears have been ubiquitous visitors to Forest Falls for years, but officials say they've been even bolder this summer in their forays into the community, which sits on a road to Big Bear Lake.

"There have been more bears, and they've been much more aggressive," said Eric Sweetman, a fire prevention officer for the U.S. Forest Service. "They've been more apt to ignore people to get the food they need to get. And they're starting to break into autos now."

One plucked a cake off a picnic table at the Big Falls picnic area, Sweetman said. Another recently stole a backpack from hikers in the nearby Alger Creek campground. In August, a mother bear and her cub knocked over a halogen lamp and set fire to a house they were ransacking, incinerating themselves and leaving a local family homeless.

Wildlife officials said it's unclear if the bears' aggressiveness stems from increased familiarity with humans or from desperation for food, driven by this year's record drought.

Wildlife biologist Doug Updike, who runs the Department of Fish and Game's bear program, said he hasn't correlated rainfall with bear behavior, but said that "intuitively it makes sense that during drought years you would expect ... a higher number of interactions between people and bears, because bears would be drawn into areas where the grass is greener, literally."

Dave Noble, Forest Home's director of operations, said bears started making frequent appearances at the camp about 15 years ago. Trouble began in 1989, when a bear entered a tent where a counselor and kids were sleeping and bit the counselor's foot. The injury was minor, but the bear was branded a hazard and killed by hunters under a state permit.

The incident sparked what Noble called a "community uprising" among residents. About 400 of the 1,600 residents of the community of Forest Falls signed petitions of protest against the bear's destruction.

Stung by the censure, camp officials took precautions against bear attacks. They forbade food in tents or cabins and installed a bear-proof trash compactor and trash cans. They hired a private ranger and night watch guards to protect campers and ward off bears. When Noble heard of a camp dog at a site in the Sierra Nevadas that chased off wandering bears, he wondered whether a similar strategy could work at Forest Home.

That led him to the nonprofit Wind River Bear Institute. Hunt had pioneered bear shepherding techniques using Karelian bear dogs. The animals, resembling a compact Husky with a raccoon-like mask, are considered intelligent and very loyal. They have thick black and white fur.

Instead of hunting bears, Hunt's dogs drive them from an inhabited area back into the forest, much as a border collie steers cattle. Upon encountering a bear, the dogs bark and chase the animal, establishing a bear-free boundary at the site.

The dogs have helped train bears to avoid people at national parks and wilderness areas throughout the United States and Canada. Eighteen Karelian bear dogs now work at those sites. Forest Home is only the second California site to use the dogs in bear management, and the first private institution to use them, Hunt said.

Kate McCurdy, a former bear biologist with Yosemite National Park, said Hunt's dogs helped clear a popular campground in Tuolumne Meadows of long-standing problem bears.

"We were really skeptical that just the experience of having dogs barking at you would be enough to scare bears off, but they learned really quickly that if you come into a campground, something scary was going to happen," McCurdy said.

The institute provided a bear dog to Forest Home's first ranger, who bought it from the camp when he left the job last year. Hunt recently brought a team of five bear dogs to the camp to work with the new ranger, Chris Thornton, who will get his own puppy from the next litter.

The dogs have improved, but not eliminated, the camp's bear problems. Indeed, during Hunt's recent visit to Forest Home a bear rummaged through a cabin. Noble said the camp will always exist near bears, but will labor to keep them in their proper place. "We want people to be able to come to our camp and experience nature, but we want them to be able to do it safely," he said.

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