Release the hounds.

Metro Vancouver’s bear problem might one day meet its match — that is, if one Coquitlam resident’s online petition succeeds.

Alexandra Marinets walks her dogs almost every morning in Coquitlam’s Mundy Park. On July 31st she noticed a sign on one of the trails. It read, ‘Run, bears, run.’ It appeared to refer to a sow and her cubs that had been shot and killed by provincial conservation officers the previous day.

“I knew that mama bear, we see her sometimes, she was never unfriendly or aggressive or annoying, she just minded her own business — and we did the same.”

Other residents were gathered around the sign, one of whom claimed there was nothing anyone could do. Marinets disagreed.

“I said, ‘oh no, we can — watch me.'”

She went home, got on her computer, and created an online petition asking the provincial government to give conservation officers a unique, non-lethal way to drive garbage bears out of the Tri-Cities urban interface — and keep them out.

Karelian bear dogs
Karelian bear dogs barking up a tree. Courtesy Washington State Fish and Wildlife

Marinets first heard of Karelian bear dogs from a friend in Washington State, where the animals are used by Fish and Wildlife officers to help combat problem bears. The large, furry, black-and-white “land pandas” can be trained to harass and literally hound a stubbornly habituated bear out of an area where it poses a threat to humans. Ideally, they send a strong, unpleasant message before a bear even has time to get used to the place.

Karelian bear dog attacking
Washington State Fish and Wildlife bear dogs going after a bear being released from a barrel. Courtesy Washington State Fish and Wildlife

“Karelian bear dogs are just fearless creatures which will bark at the bear until it just gives up,” Marinets said from her Coquitlam backyard, where occasionally a large black bear lumbers through her garden and roams her neighbourhood streets. She hopes her petition will convince the province to establish a Karelian bear dog program, where the dogs will team up with conservation officers.

Bear in Coquitlam neighbourhood
Bear at dusk in Coquitlam neighbourhood. Courtesy Alexandra Marinets

Since 2003, Karelian bear dogs have been used by Washington State Fish and Wildlife officers in their efforts to reduce conflicts between bears and humans. Originally hunting dogs from Finland, the Karelians have a nose for bears, and are relentless when in pursuit. The goal is not to harm the bear, but to make its experience so unpleasant it associates the area -- and the dogs’ odour -- with their snarling, barking, chasing and lunging.

The dogs can even work from vehicles to clear wildlife from roads. The Wind River Bear Institute in Fairbanks, Alaska breeds and trains Karelian bear dogs. The institute shared a video with CTV News of wildlife K-9 “Sisko” reacting to the presence of grizzly bears on the side of the highway. And the bears react to him:

Until 2017, Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass provincial Fish and Wildlife officers had four of Wind River Bear Institute’s Karelians working the area. The local Bear Smart program credits the dogs -- along with community efforts to reduce attractants such as garbage -- with the decrease in the number of bears infiltrating urban areas, and thus the need to destroy them.

Kuma the Karelian bear dog
Kuma, a Karelian bear dog from Crowsnest Pass, Alta. Courtesy Alberta Fish and Wildlife

“No doubt in my mind,” said Christy Pool of the Crowsnest Pass Bear Smart program, when asked if the dogs were effective. “They add an exceptional component because animals understand animals. That language, that natural instinct to respond — they read it, they get it, and they tend to not want to push it.”

Alberta’s bear dog program was halted after 15 years, but Pool says the community wants them back. She said not only were they effective at redirecting both black bears and grizzlies, they served as “ambassadogs” for educational outreach, helping Fish and Wildlife officers teach bear awareness and conservation. The Crowsnest Pass teams were featured in National Geographic and other media outlets. Talks are underway with the Alberta government to reinstate the Karelian bear dog program. Pool is hopeful another team will be working soon.

As for her petition, Marinets originally set her bar low and was not expecting more than a few hundred people to sign. It is now well on its way to its new goal: 10,000 signatures.

Maple Ridge veterinarian Dr Adrian Walton has seen the interest in the Karelians as a solution to the bear problem, but he cautions that no aversive tool will work if the main culprit in the equation does not change its habits.

“The thing that I find most frustrating is that everyone is looking for a silver bullet — except the major thing that people can do,” he said. “Which is look to themselves and fix the attractants that are causing these bears to come down out of the mountains and use us as a food source.”

Pool agrees: “You need to remove the attractants first and foremost because that’s what’s drawing the bear in to begin with.”