MISSOULA, Mont. — In a perfect world, the Wind River Bear Institute wouldn't exist, and the Karelian bear dogs wouldn't have a job chasing wildlife off humanity's doorstep.
But as long as people live in the woods, leave food on their porch and maintain sloppy campgrounds, conflicts with wildlife will continue and the dogs will stay employed.
"We find bears that come into areas inhabited by humans — campgrounds, dumps and neighborhoods — and we teach the bears to stay in the wilderness," said dog handler Tim Cavey. "We use the dogs to do that."
Handlers with the Wind River institute, based in Florence, performed an education skit in August with aspiring filmmakers with the International Wildlife Media Center and its training arm, the Montana Film Academy.
The students were asked to produce independent shorts based on the lessons learned during the institute's performance. Their message was simple: Keep food and other attractants away from bears.
"If you have a candy store sitting in your front yard, you can't ask a bear to leave it alone," said Wind River kennel director Renee Van Camp. "We're dropping homesteads in their territory and not only asking them to go around, but we're putting their favorite foods right in our front yards and telling them not to touch it."
Van Camp and members of the Wind River institute are on a twofold mission, which begins by teaching curious bears to keep away from people. The second goal — and the more difficult of the two — aims to teach people to change their habits around wildlife and keep their food secured.
While it's common sense to most who camp in the backcountry or live in bear habitat, not everyone is getting the message. From the greater Yellowstone ecosystem to the Bitterroot Valley and Glacier National Park, bears are destroyed every year due to conflicts with humans.
With their cameras mounted on sturdy tripods, the students watched three Karelian bear dogs in action at a Missoula park. A grizzly bear — played by a man wearing a grizzly hide — wandered into the campground and scavenged a cooler and a backpack left in the open.
The dogs were used to chase the man-bear running back into the woods. Comical for a skit, perhaps, but it happens in reality hundreds of times a year.
"We do 800 of these pushes each year," said Van Camp. "We also do cougars, bighorn sheep, moose and feral pigs. Teaching wildlife to stay away is the easy part. Teaching people who've been leaving things out forever is far more difficult."
Van Camp has taken the institute's message across the country, appearing live on "Good Morning America" and raising awareness across Wyoming, Montana and Canada. The institute has worked in Texas with feral pigs and taken dogs to work in California's Yosemite Nation Park.
"The beauty of these dogs is that they respect the bears enough that once the bears go into cover, the dogs leave them alone," Van Camp said. "They're tenacious barkers. They'll bark as long as a bear is within 100 yards, and they'll bark until the bear leaves."
The Wind River dogs trace their lineage back to Finland, where institute founder and former bear biologist Carrie Hunt traveled 18 years ago. Hunt returned to Montana with a mission to reduce the need to relocate and destroy so-called problem bears.
To accomplish that, Hunt brought two dogs home, including a female named Eilu. Many of Eilu's descendants are described by Cavey as "conflict-level" dogs. It's the highest ranking a Karelian bear dog can achieve in the line of duty.
"We don't train them to do the bears, we test them," Cavey said. "A conflict-level dog will confront the bears and move them out. They won't back away or cower from the bear."
Not all dogs achieve such status. Some know their place in the presence of a bear and can't be used for conflict. But they make good protection dogs for those who work in bear country.
Some dogs also end up in search and rescue, and some are simply used as companions.
"They already have bears on the brain, so they want to find bears," said Van Camp. "We don't actually train them to do it, but we assess how they do it. Not every Karelian bear dog will be able to stand up to a bear."
Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com