A new Department of Fish and Wildlife program to keep black bears from coming into conflict with homeowners uses Karelian bear dogs, a Finnish hunting breed, to train the bears to stay away from humans.

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Some day this spring, a black bear is going to lumber out of the Cascade foothills in search of food.

The hungry bear is going to wander into someone’s backyard, searching for a garbage can with a flimsy lid.

An anxious homeowner is going to call the state wildlife office.

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And Mishka, the state’s first wildlife service dog, is going to go to work.

Mishka is the first Karelian bear dog to be used in wildlife enforcement in the United States. The medium-size, black-and-white Finnish hunting dog is uniquely suited to combat a growing problem in eastern King County: black bears coming into conflict with rural and suburban homeowners.

Last year, King County’s bears accounted for 71 percent of all the bear problems that wildlife officers responded to in the area covered by the Mill Creek office, which handles everything on the west side of the Cascades from South King County to the Canadian border.

In 2008, state wildlife officials fielded 881 calls about bear sightings in King County alone, and sent officers out on 260 calls. That’s up from the year before, when officers received 679 sightings and responded to 202 bear calls.

Bears have swaggered through yards in Issaquah, rooted through garbage cans in Carnation, dined on dog food in Enumclaw, even traversed greenbelts in Bellevue.

“There’s either more bear, or more people put in bear country that weren’t there before,” said state Department of Fish and Wildlife officer Bruce Richards.

Mishka is one of three bear dogs in the state’s new program. They help wildlife officers in two ways:

• With their marvelous sense of smell and extensive training, they can track down a bear hiding in the woods.

• When they find that bear, the dogs can help wildlife officials frighten it so thoroughly that it will think twice about visiting civilization again.

Not every bear can be trained to avoid people, but in a pilot project here last year, about 80 percent of the bears treated with “bear-shepherding” techniques did not return, Richards said.

Even though the dogs have proved their worth, the program faces an obstacle.

Like most state agencies these days, Fish and Wildlife doesn’t have funds to start a new program, so it must raise all the money to buy, care for and train new bear dogs through private donations, said department Capt. Bill Hebner.

Over its lifetime, each dog, which lives with its handler, costs about $10,000.

“The dogs are amazing,” said Martha Jordan, a private wildlife biologist and member of the board of directors of the Trumpeter Swan Society.

Jordan, who advocates for the use of highly trained dogs in wildlife work, is helping the state raise money to train a new puppy, Colter, and to buy another dog this fall. “It’s the biggest bang for the buck this agency has ever had,” she said.

Karelians have been used for centuries in Finland to hunt bear and elk. They have an instinctive tendency to face down a big animal like a bear without fear, but also stay out of harm’s way, Hebner said.

In a “hard release,” the bear is first tranquilized with a dart, then tagged. But instead of being moved to another location — the old way of dealing with problem bears — the animal is allowed to wake up where it was tranquilized or is moved a short distance away.

And what a rude awakening. As the bear regains consciousness, wildlife officers shoot rubber bullets and bean bags, set off fireworks and shout at the bear, while the bear dog barks furiously from the sidelines.

After the bear has gone some distance into the woods, the dog is released and chases the bear deeper into the woods.

“We give ’em a chance to become a better bear,” Richards said. “If they come back, they’re in trouble.”

The alternative — transporting the bear hundreds of miles away to a new home — is often much less successful and more dangerous for the bear. The animal may not be able to find enough food in its new home territory and face starvation.

Many times, relocated bears try to return home and are killed when crossing a road, Hebner said.

Mishka’s bear-tracking instincts only scratch the surface of what the dog can do. He was originally used to track cougars by wildlife biologist Rocky Spencer, a well-known mountain-lion researcher who studied the animals living on the urban-rural fringe of the Cascades.

Spencer, a good friend and frequent partner of Richards’, died in a helicopter accident in 2007, but Mishka still helps Richards track cougars on occasion.

Mishka’s keen sense of smell was used to find evidence in an elk-poaching case in Olympic National Park in September 2007.

In Puyallup last year, he helped wildlife officials unravel a would-be mountain lion attack; the victim, it turned out, was not mauled by a cougar as he claimed, but instead by his own pit bull.

Riding through the Cedar River Watershed with Richards one day last week, Mishka leaned out the window and sampled the air as the truck plowed through snow-covered gravel roads.

Suddenly the dog gave a sharp bark. Richards let Mishka out of the truck, and the dog dashed into the woods, then returned to the gravel road and dug a bone out of the snow.

Richards said it’s likely the dog smelled an animal carcass in the woods, and the bone was left on the road by an animal feeding on the carcass.

Spencer trained Mishka to bark when he smelled a dead animal and to track down the remains; that skill helped Spencer track cougar kills.

Richards admits Mishka is not without his flaws. His early training was haphazard. He doesn’t always respond to every command. He can be lazy. And he’s 6 years old, middle age in dog years. He’ll probably continue to “work bear” for four more years before his retirement.

Richards emphasizes that although Mishka can help retrain bears, the best way to prevent bear problems is to retrain people: by getting them to keep a tight lid on garbage cans, take down bird feeders in the spring (bears are surprisingly attracted to bird seed) and not leave dog or cat food outside.

A bear that gets too accustomed to scavenging among humans may not be easily rehabilitated by a bear dog and rubber bullets.

“These dogs are not a panacea by any stretch of the imagination,” Hebner said. “They’re a tool to help resolve the problem.”

Or, as Richards puts it: “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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