Living in northwest Montana, there are times I feel nervous hiking or berry picking in bear country.
So often I’ve thought: there’s got to be a better solution to my nerves than clutching bear spray as I round every corner and singing Madonna songs at full volume to try to prevent surprising a bear.
The risks of being attacked by a bear are low, but the stakes are high.
Early this spring, a woman working as a field assistant for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in a grizzly bear research program was mauled in the woods near our neighbouring town, Libby. The organization issued a news release yesterday about the attack, which confirms that the bear was an adult grizzly bear.
According to Fish, Wildlife and Parks, an estimated 50,000 to 1000,000 grizzlies lived in the lower 48 alongside native Americans. But with the arrival of white folks with firearms, the population plummeted to less than 1000 by 1975, when the species was declared threatened.
Grizzlies are still threatened but in recovery in our area, and locals are still practising doing something we’ve never done before – live with these large predators without killing them when our lives overlap too much.
I went to our family friend Sierra Owen’s place property in the lower Yaak yesterday to find out more about how she spends hundreds of hours working and playing in the woods free from worry about predators.
Sierra’s predator solution was staring me in the face as soon as I pulled up in her driveway. Four large, incredibly fluffy dogs calmly surrounded the car, not barking or moving.
Their mane-rimmed blunt faces and solemn eyes reminded me of lions.
“The dogs are Ovcharka breed,” Sierra told me as she finished her morning chores, which included a changing of the dogs, kenneling some and letting others out [there are seven total] “they are an ancient breed – the Persians used them as war dogs – but they were originally bred by shepherds who were dealing with lots of predators, especially wolves.”
Ovcharkas are not herding dogs, Sierra explained, but the dogs will run the perimeter of their territory, catching the wind and driving predators away with their “obnoxious” behaviour.
They also gravitate towards hills and high places, where they can watch and wait.
“When you see them with a bear, it’s amazing how fast they are for a large dog,” Sierra said, “they will circle the bear, nipping it on the butt until it is fed up and eventually moving it along.”
Looking into the dense, dark woods directly uphill from Sierra and her husband Odie’s property, and the area where they keep chickens, dog food and previously, pigs, [all bear attractants] I can see why they wanted to find a predator solution.
“Those woods are a corridor between the second largest and the largest roadless areas in the Yaak,” Sierra said “before we had the dogs, I had no idea how many predators moved through there, but now we have the dogs and we can hear when they have something, we know it’s a highway.”
Sierra and her family – which includes son Diamond and daughter Bella – got their first Ovcharka seven years ago when wolves started coming into her yard to hunt their piglets, and her two Australian Shepards would “hide under the porch,” Sierra laughed.
[What can I say? we Aussies are just not accustomed to living with predators!]
“We were looking for a match for wolves initially,” Sierra said “and our first Ovcharka, Atta, did a great job keeping them at bay. But watching her chase them out over and over, we realized – it’s a big job for one dog.”
As their Ovcharka family grew, and they moved into breeding the dogs [check out their website] Sierra and Odie have had several close encounters with predators which have confirmed their faith in the dogs.
“A few years ago, we had an older grizzly bear take one of our piglets,” Sierra said “our electric fencing was not high enough, and he just stepped over it before the dogs could even smell him. It was Ares’ only failure [not to smell the bear before it entered the pig pen].”
When the dogs did get wind of the bear, eating his pork in the nearby woods, they pursued him. Meanwhile, Odie and Diamond grabbed shotguns and ran outside, as they had a black bear tag [which means you are allowed to hunt one bear in a particular season].
Odie and Diamond were already too close before realizing they were not dealing with a milder mannered black bear, but a huge, old grizzly bear, who was defending his kill.
“The bear charged Odie, and Ares got between them” Sierra recalled, “Odie told Diamond to get the hell out of there and tried to retreat himself.”
Ares managed to distract the bear and run it into the woods, and the family sought assistance from Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who came to trap the bear.
After the bear was released in a nearby drainage, Sierra half expected it to return.
“But it never did,” she said, “I think this is the best thing about Ovcharkas – they’re not only a deterrent, but it’s enough of a negative experience that even problem predators often don’t return.”
Ares may have saved Odie’s life, but he also saved another life – that of the bear.
Once bears have a taste for livestock, garbage or other food sources, it can be impossible to keep them out, and the bear may end up being euthanized.
Sierra has worked for local non-profit Yaak Valley Forest Council since 2004 as a seasonal field technician, and she told me she and her colleagues never go out alone.
But having her dog Ares along when she’s at work results in the whole crew feeling safer, she said, and the benefits of a bear dog on the crew have been demonstrated several times.
“I’m still alert, but I ultimately feel that it’s not my job to identify when there is a predator in the vicinity,” Sierra explained, “I know that Ares will find it before I do and that he knows what to do.”
Although Sierra trains her dogs in basic commands, the behaviour that Ares displays when he comes up against a predator is not the result of training but is an innate quality, the result of years of breeding.
Last week, Sierra and her two colleagues were collecting data in the woods when “I heard Ares on the creek bottom doing this crazy barking – different to when he has a bear – and when he came back up the hill, hot on his heels was a full-grown grey wolf,” Sierra told me.
On reflection, Sierra thinks it may have been the wolf barking, not Ares.
“He [Ares] had obviously been scrapping – he wasn’t hurt, but his fur was ruffled and he was covered in slobber,” Sierra continued.
The wolf retreated, and the cool-headed crew continued their work, but soon found they were surrounded by the pack, who were barking “just like my dogs when something comes in the yard,” Sierra said.
The crew decided to move to the next drainage, and the wolves “basically escorted us out” Sierra said, noting that her dog kept close, ready for action but not provoking the wolves.
When the crew consulted a wolf biologist about the incident, she said there was almost certainly a den of puppies the wolves were protecting.
Sierra, along with many who work in the woods they love, is a conservationist at heart and said she believes it is her responsibility to manage her livestock and other bear attractants. “It’s not that the predators are bad for wanting to eat,” she laughed, “if we wanted to never deal with predators we would live in Kansas!”
But when humans and predators are sharing space, having a tool like an Ovcharka could be the key to minimizing human-bear conflicts and preventing situations like the mauling of a Fish, Wildlife and Parks employee on the job.
The reason U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service allowed researchers to hike alone in known bear habitat was likely budget, but if they are not in a position to pay another employee $15 an hour, then maybe a dog at a one-off cost of $2000 plus food and board could be a good comprise.
It’s best for us to avoid surprise encounters. And it’s best for the bears.
Plus, these dogs are mighty cute! check out Sierra and Odie’s website for info about their next planned breeding.
Thanks for reading!