Using aversive conditioning as a tool to solve bear/human conflicts is not new, but there have been some recent developments that offer improved results. Aversive conditioning is simply creating a very negative experience for the offending animal, hoping that the negative experience will outweigh the positive rewards offered by the nuisance activity.
Nuisance bears have traditionally been captured at the site of the offense, immobilized, marked and weighed, and allowed to recover from the drugs. When released, the bears were hazed with rubber buckshot or pepper sprays and, in some cases, this worked well. However, many nuisance bears that were habituated to humans and either food or garbage, often continued their nuisance activity after capture and harassment. Often they would change location, but the offending activity persisted. As a result, several bears were killed by agency personnel or placed in zoos. Other bears were killed by motor vehicles because they were spending so much time in areas near humans.
Using dogs to haze bears had been discussed for years at BBCC gatherings. The discussions were dominated by what breed of dog would be best and how they would work in this region. The job requires a dog of sufficient size and athletic enough to move efficiently through the dense, swampy bear habitat of south Louisiana. An overly aggressive dog would likely get killed by a bear, so another requirement was for a dog with good temperament and excellent obedience. Hounds trained to hunt wild hogs were used on several occasions to haze bears with some positive results. Unfortunately, the hounds got so scattered over the swamps and marshland that it sometimes took several days to collect the dogs. This created another problem with the time required to work a nuisance situation, and so the search for another breed continued. The Blackmouth cur was the next candidate selected for use in aversive conditioning. The Blackmouth cur is a medium-sized dog that is very athletic, tractable, and aggressive. This breed is used as a stock and hunting dog that traditionally hunts hogs, squirrels, and raccoon.
The dogs are used in combination with the same aversive conditioning procedures employed on nuisance bears as before, but after the initial hazing with rubber buckshot, the dogs are released.
Campsites, including buildings, should be kept as clean as possible. Specific areas should be designated for cleaning fish and game, and these areas should be cleaned thoroughly after each use. Refuse from cleaning should be buried deeply or stored in a bear-proof container and removed from the site. Keep garbage in a locked container and remove it when you leave the camp.
Experienced dogs will catch the bear within about one hundred yards and either tree it or circle it on the ground, cutting off its escape when it tries to run.
The “fight” involves a lot of barking and growling, with little to no actual contact. When the dogs are holding the bear at bay, a biologist can run up and usually get off another round of rubber buckshot to get the bear running again. The dogs will usually catch the bear again in another hundred yards or so and the process is repeated. This may happen three or four times before the dogs are called back to the handler.
The hazing is very intense for about fifteen minutes and then the bear is allowed to go about its business. The BBCC Conflict Management Team has been using the curs since 2002, and has found hazing bears with dogs to be extremely successful. When the dogs are properly trained, they can be utilized in a variety of situations because they can be called back if necessary. The dogs are also useful as ambassadors for the bear management program, where they can be taken to presentations to school groups and other educational opportunities with the public.
Rubber Buckshot Warning: The various brands of “less than lethal” rubber bullets, buckshot, and slugs, perform differently. Some are safe at close range and ineffective at greater distances. Others, effective at up to fifty yards, are dangerous at close range. Only trained personnel should be allowed to use these tools in dealing with wildlife management issues.
Pepper Spray Warning: If used improperly, the pepper sprayer might get sprayed, and the result is a very unpleasant experience. Quite a few biologists have inhaled the pepper mist intended for brother bruin. The BBCC Conflict Management Team doesn’t typically use pepper spray for the obvious reasons. And yes, we learned the hard way!
Paintball guns: In recent years, the use of paintball guns has been successful in hazing nuisance bears in some parks out west. The paintball guns, when cranked up to their most powerful setting, can shoot a paintball harder and farther than rubber buckshot. It hurts more if the paintballs are stored in a freezer, making them very hard. They don't injure the bear, but certainly sting. The paintball gun allows the hazer many more rounds than a conventional shotgun with a much longer range.