Fire service taps K-9 helpers to keep bears away during firefighting

Rio, a Karelian bear dog, hangs his head out of the window to catch a scent while on patrol for bears Monday, June 16, 2020, near the Isom Creek Fire. The dogs and their handler Nils Pedersen of the Wind River Bear Institute were requested by fire managers to keep firefighters safe while in camp and on the fireline. The intent is reducing human-caused bear mortality and human-wildlife conflict. (Terry Solomon/Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team)

The Alaska Fire Service has called on specialized canines to help protect firefighters battling the Isom Creek Fire along the Dalton Highway.

Fire information officer Sam Harrel says a handler and two dogs from the Alaska- and Montana-based Wind River Bear Institute, have been hired to deter bears from fire camps.

“Oftentimes we can have a bear that is pretty persistent and becomes a nuisance, so to be able to avoid that and have the opportunity for some non-lethal hazing, we’re giving a try of these Karelian Bear Dogs,” he said.

Harrel says use of the dogs in wildfire camps is a first for the Bureau of Land Management, an effort aimed at safety and conservation.

“We’re hoping we can manage a problem bear in a way that is much better for all of us,” he said.

Nils Pedersen, Wind River Bear Institute director of Fairbanks said he’s been with the organization for ten years and learned the value of the Karelian Bear Dog. He said the breed was developed in eastern Finland and western Russia to track big game. 

“We’re takig that innate instinct that they have for hunting and applying it to conservation. So these dogs are trained to find bears and get them out of places they shouldn’t be,” he said.

Pedersen said he and his dogs have previously helped keep bears out of other types of remote field camps like along pipelines, and the work at the Isom Creek wildfire is similar.

“Running the dogs through the camp before people are up, making sure there aren’t any bears around and then being on call for any conflict or other instance that takes place throughout the day, and then monitoring, determining the presence or absence of a bear on worksites and wireline, and the case that we do have a bear that’s in a bad site, helping move it out of human-occupied space without having to use lethal force,” he said.

Pedersen emphasizes that the dogs are generally kept on a leash, and push bears back into the woods by barking at them. So far, he and the dogs have helped deter one bear, a black bear that came into the Isom Creek fire camp.