A brown bear habitat with one of the highest population densities habitats in the world

Carrie Hunt with a bear dog
Carrie Hunt with a bear dog
Insights on the use of bear dogs

Bear conservation and me

I have loved wildlife ever since I was a child. The Jungle Book, which I read at the age of 8, made me decide to work with bears. I am very lucky to be living my dream now. I founded the Wind River Bear Institute to ensure the survival of all kinds of bears for future generations. However, I cannot say that I have fully made my dream come true. There are still so many challenges related with human-bear conflicts. In this section I will write about how I have got to where I am standing now, and from the next section I will write about how I feel about bears in Shiretoko based on my experiences.

Bear management usually consists of two approaches: relocation and euthanasia. Relocation is not always the best solution. Once bears get used to staying around humans or eat human foods, they keep returning even after being trapped and relocated. In those cases, the final approach, euthanasia is implemented, which means destroying bears. I have always thought that we do not have any approaches to help bears when they get into trouble, and that we should seek a way to change things.

Chasing my dream, I joined a grizzly bear study team at Yellowstone National Park after I graduated from college. But Yellowstone was no different. They did not have any options other than the two approaches I mentioned above. I still remember the day my supervisor mentioned that one female grizzly had killed a sheep so we had to destroy her. We had tracked this particular grizzly using radio telemetry to follow her behavioral patterns for some time. I was so frustrated that I could not stop crying. I made up my mind to create better approaches for bear management.

I went to the University of Montana for an M.S. in wildlife ecology to learn more about bears. There, I gradually started to figure out better approaches. These consist of teaching tools that teach bears correct behaviors, such as avoiding humans and human boundaries. I developed several teaching tools such as rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, and red pepper spray. But the best tool I came up with was “bear shepherding” using Karelian bear dogs which are used specifically for brown bear hunting. It was a completely new approach at that time, so not a few people said it was a crazy idea. I started the Wind River Bear Institute to test its efficacy and it was a great success. “Bear shepherding” using Karelian bear dogs is now considered to be one of the most effective bear management tools currently available, and we have worked with a lot of federal, state, and private wildlife agencies to solve problems with human-bear conflicts. I will write more in detail about Karelian bear dogs in the section “SHIRETOKO: BEAR MANAGEMENT USING BEAR DOGS”.

Bears, especially grizzly bears, have been considered “horrible” and “scary” bears all over the world. Grizzly bears killed as many as 100 people during the last century. Because of the harmfulness to humans and livestock, ranchers, hunters, and trappers had killed so many of them that the grizzly bear is currently listed as a threatened species in the US. I believe that there is a way people and bears can live in harmony with each other. We will keep being active to reduce human-caused mortality and conflicts worldwide and ensure the continued survival of all species of bears for future generations. That is my goal and our mission.

Yezo brown bears

Yezo brown bears © Shiretoko Nature Office Co., Ltd.

Shiretoko: High brown bear population density

Shiretoko has one of the highest brown bear population densities in the world. It is estimated that about 300 bears live in 1000 km2 of land in Shiretoko (Kohira et al., 2006), a density as high as the grizzly bear density in the Admiralty Islands or McNeil River in Alaska. It is surprising that such a high population density of bears can be found in such a small industrialized country.

If you visit Shiretoko, you can feel the presence of bears in the old-growth forest, and sometimes even see them. If you join boat tours that are designed for bear watching, you have an over 90% chance to spot bears walking along the coast from a safe boat. Eco-friendly bear-watching tours provide unforgettable experiences for many visitors each year. We must never forget, however, that all bears are wild animals, and there is always the potential that they can damage crops or harm humans. The situation in Shiretoko offers a prime example of the plight facing bear and animal conservationists worldwide: How can man coexist with wildlife on our planet?

Shiretoko: A diverse environment

Shiretoko is a peninsula 25 km wide and 70 km long, extending from northeast Hokkaido. You can see a variety of landscapes alongside 1500m-class mountains made by volcanic activities, such as old-growth forests that cover the mountains, steep cliffs rising up from the coast, wetlands and lakes on plateaus. Shiretoko also has an extremely diverse marine ecosystem because the seafloor drops drastically at the eastern side of the peninsula. These geographical and topographical characteristics facilitate complex interactions between the terrestrial and marine environments, which makes it possible for a variety of organisms of both northern and southern species to live on this peninsula.

This rich environment also enables bears to live here. The presence of bears was one of the most highly evaluated points when Shiretoko was registered as a UNESCO World National Heritage Site in 2005.

Shiretoko: Rich food sources from the ocean and mountains

The home range size of a bear depends on the amount and density of food sources. It is smaller in an area with more food sources. It is reported that the average bear home range size in Shiretoko is 11.5-21.6 km2 for a female and 199.2-461.8 km2 for a male (Yamanaka et al., 1995), which is much smaller than that of Yellowstone National Park and central Canada. It is about as large as the grizzly bear home range size on the coast of Alaska, where bears can find a lot of food sources. This reflects the fact that there are many food sources available to bears throughout the year in Shiretoko.

Tall grass along the coast and skunk cabbages in lakes are the food sources in spring, and fruits of alpine plants and ant nests at high-elevation regions can be the food sources in summer. In fall, bears eat nuts and berries in mixed forests at the foot of mountains. Because they can get foods in all seasons, they do not need to move far away. Carcasses or fawns of the recently increasing deer population are also becoming more important food sources for bears.

Bears being able to get salmon and trout, as well as carcasses of sea animals, is another characteristic of Shiretoko, where bears have access to coastlines that do not have roads or housing. Bears play a role in carrying nutrients from the ocean to forests by consuming food sources from the ocean or moving them inland. The life of bears in Shiretoko is a constant reminder of the magnificent nature’s power, a power that we cannot control.

Shiretoko: Coexisting with bears

Hunting pressure on bears has historically been high in Shiretoko. In 1966, a special spring hunt started, which allowed unlimited hunting of bears in the easiest hunting season. However, hunters voluntarily decided not to hunt bears in Shiretoko in 1982, when Shiretoko was listed as a national wildlife protection area. No bears have been killed since then, and the government has changed its policy to protection. As a result, the number of bear sightings increased dramatically in 1995. This increase is also likely due to the fact that as these bears have never been hunted or chased, their fear of humans has decreased. The number of reported sightings has been increasing since 1995, exceeding 1000 in Shari Town in the west of Shiretoko. Accidents caused by the increase in bears are a matter of concern (Yamanaka et al., 2016). In order to prevent accidents, it is important to keep a distance between people and bears. All residents and visitors must take precautions to ensure that bears do not become habituated to humans or human areas.

Various control methods to prevent bear habituation have been implemented, mainly by wildlife biologists from Shiretoko Nature Foundation. These include removal and management of attractants, electric fences, education for visitors, and elevated boardwalks. It is still difficult to manage the behavior of the visitors who come to Shiretoko for a variety of purposes. Measures need to be taken, such as setting a rule for the distance from which bears should be watched or giving wildlife managers legal powers to control visitors.

Shiretoko is also a pioneer in using nonlethal bear management tools such as rubber bullets and dogs, although I believe that there are still many things they can do, such as using specially trained Karelian bear dogs, to make the situation better.

Bear dogs facing a Yezo brown bear

Bear dogs facing a Yezo brown bear © 2003 Wind River Bear Institute

Shiretoko: Bear control using bear dogs

As I described in the first section, the Wind River Bear Institute and I were the first in the world to use Karelian bear dogs as a nonlethal bear control tool. As a hunting dog, Karelian bear dogs have been trained not to bite a target animal but to stop it until their owner (a hunter) arrives to shoot it. Using this characteristic, specially trained Karelian bear dogs can chase “problem” bears away deep into a forest without hurting the bears, humans, or themselves. Karelian bear dogs are a great aversive conditioning tool that can teach bears to recognize and avoid human territory.

Teaching bears correct behaviors is not enough, however. Education for people is another key element to reduce human-bear conflicts. Human foods, garbage and other attractants can result in food-conditioned bears, which are not only used to staying around humans but also willing to come close to humans or human areas to get food. If bears eat human foods often, it becomes very difficult to stop that behavior. Each person has to behave properly and immediate action is needed once a problem occurs. The Wind River Bear Institute developed a program called the Partners-in-Life Program, which teaches both bears and people to coexist by using Karelian bear dogs. We have saved many bears which would previously have had to be killed or relocated in many places in North America and Karuizawa, Japan.

In order to conduct a bear control program using Karelian bear dogs effectively, the skill of the handlers is very important. I am not worried about this at all in Shiretoko, because they already have bear specialists with great skills and enthusiasm. I believe Karelian bear dogs can be a great alternative management tool in Shiretoko to reduce human-bear conflicts and ensure the survival of bears for future generations.

Shiretoko: What bears tell us

Impressions of bears are totally different depending on the person. Some people have positive impressions of bears such as “cute” or “beautiful”, while other people have negative impressions such as “scary” or “dangerous”. It is true that bears have the power to injure humans, but we can minimize the risk through our behavior and effective control. The natural history in Europe and America also tells us that despite their might in the animal kingdom, bears are very vulnerable to mass development and overharvesting. We should seek a way to coexist with bears not just through our impressions but through correct knowledge.

I hope all of you will visit Shiretoko and see the wild bears with your own eyes. I also would like all of you to know that a great deal of effort is put forth to protect bears and ensure the safety of people. Seeing Shiretoko for yourself will drive this home to you far more than any books or pictures. I see the future of wild bears and humans in the field of Shiretoko.

Carrie Hunt with a bear dog

Carrie Hunt with a bear dog © 2003 Wind River Bear Institute

References

Kohira, M., Okada, H., Yamanaka, M., 2006. Wildlife in Shiretoko and Yellowstone National Park. Shiretoko Nature Foundation, Shiretoko, Japan.

Yamanaka, M., Okada, H., Masuda, Y., Tsuruga, H. and Kaji, K. 1995. Study on habitat environment and habitat use of brown bears in Shiretoko Peninsula. In (Hokkaido Forest Research Institute, ed.) Landscape Ecological Studies on Basin Management Concerning about Conservation of High Nature Level Ecosystems, pp. 122–130. Hokkaido Forest Research Institute, Sapporo (in Japanese).

Yamanaka, M., Masuda, Y., and Ishinazaka, T. 2016. Recent Advances and Challenges in the Conservation and Management of Brown Bears in Shiretoko National Park. Bulletin of the Shiretoko Museum, Special issue 1 : 55–78.

Storyteller

Carrie Hunt

Founder of Wind River Bear Institute

Carrie Hunt is a bear biologist who has worked with government and private groups throughout North America for over 25 years. She is known for her pioneering work in the area of bear-human conflict resolution, particularly the method of “teaching bears NO”. She developed the red pepper spray system that is widely used today to turn away approaching bears. She also conducted the first investigations on aversive conditioning of free-ranging grizzly bears with problem behaviors, by using rubber bullets. In 1982, after becoming interested in using dogs to deter and repel bears, she found a breed that seemed perfect for the task: the Karelian Bear Dog. KBDs have been bred and used by grizzly bear hunters and farmers in Finland and western Russia for centuries. She founded the Wind River Bear Institute in 1995, implementing bear management using KBD around North America and Japan.

Carrie Hunt