WildFutures Research Assistant Alexa Boesel Interviews RIch Beausoleil, Bear and Cougar Specialist, with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife - October 2018. Rich is featured in our 2018 Wildlife Webinar Series.
Alexa: Could you explain to us your ideal model of coexistence with large carnivores? What role do KBDs play in this?
Rich: Ideally, it is my hope that KBD’s will continue to help us accomplish our agency goals of protecting wildlife on many fronts, but for human-carnivore coexistence to occur, the model is that the dogs help us buy some time, time for the public involved to realize why human-wildlife interactions are occurring in the first place and take the proactive steps necessary to prevent these interactions. The KBDs address the symptoms, not the cure. For coexistence, the cure is personal responsibility if you live in areas where carnivores are present; whether that be proper husbandry practices for goats, sheep, and chickens (8 foot fences, electric fencing, a secure place to house the animals overnight, keeping a clean outfit, etc) and not intentionally or unintentionally feeding wildlife like deer, which is the cougar’s main prey item.
Alexa: What was your introduction to using KBDs in conservation? Who was the first KBD that you met?
Rich: My first introduction to using KBDs was a trip to Glacier National Park to work with Carrie Hunt and her KBDs Cassidy, Satchmo, and Tuffy. Rocky Spencer (my partner at the time) and I made the trip to Montana to assist Carrie in patrolling campgrounds where grizzly bears were known to pass through because campers would leave food items behind. We hazed one grizzly on leash and the dogs were fearless , pushing the bear back safely into the forest. The rest of the afternoon, we did some training and it was during that trip that we both made the decision that we wanted KBDs; we knew there was huge potential for this kind of work in Washington. But. We’ve taken it so much further than just working with bears, as the webinar explains.
Alexa: How much time does a KBD take to be fully “trained” and safely able to do their job?
Rich: It takes about a year and a half of daily training to do this kind of work safely. Most of our agency work is done off-leash and so not only is it training the dogs to find the wildlife we want them to find (like bear & cougar), but it’s the partnership that needs to be fostered, and getting the dog to want to respond to the commands that we use. You have to nurture the bond so that the dog knows that you are their protector, but also that the dog is your protector; you’re both a team and it takes both of you. Then the dog also needs to understand when to bark and be aggressive (e.g. like when we are trying to tree a bear or cougar, or haze them back into the forest), and when to turn it off because we have successfully made the capture (e.g. the animal has been safely chemically immobilized). This is how we teach the KBDs that we aren’t out to hurt the animal. When you see that light go on, and they understand what we are trying to do, it’s a great rewarding feeling.
Alexa: Can you tell us about the individuals you have now? Their ages, how they are related to each other? When they retire, what does their life look like?
Rich: We have had 8 KBD’s on the team in Washington since 2003. As you know, the dogs are purchased with funds donated by the public. So while the agency authorizes the use and transport, and guides the program, the dogs are essentially 100% personal dogs. The agency has a policy that if you decide to leave your job before the dog is 8 years old, then the dog stays and gets partnered with another handler. However, that is unlikely because we vet new handlers so that they realize that this is a lifetime commitment. So when they retire from WDFW work, they are still our personal pets and part of our families. Typically the retirement window is 9-12 years old, usually 10 years old or so. The handler decides when the dogs is slowing down and when safety might be compromised. Nonetheless, the dogs continue to be part of the program and participating in educational programs; so they can go much longer than that.
Mishka – 16 years old – retired
Cash – 13 years old – recently passed away due to cancer
Savu-(Colters brother)9 years old – retired
Colter (Savu’s brother) 9 years old
Indy - (Spencer’s brother)7 years old
Spencer (Indy’s brother) 7 years old
Jax- 3 years old
Freida – 6 months
Alexa: How important are KBD in conservation of bears and cougars? What is the success rate of the KBD program?
Rich: I think the webinar clearly explained how important the dogs are. The kind of work they do is incredible and much too numerous to mention here so please watch the webinar for a full explanation. The make agency employees much more efficient and self-sufficient. They aren’t 100% successful at making captures, no canines are, but it’s well above 85%. One thing that most folks may not understand, is that the handler plays a large role in making the dogs successful, and vice versa of course. But when it comes to coexistence, brochures, websites, and kiosks don’t hold a candle to meeting the KBD’s. People absorb the educational messages we deliver in those face to face meetings so much better because they interact with these impressive dogs. And because we train KBDs be 100% human socialized, any new person they meet is immediately adopted as a pack member. So the dogs respond to them as much as they respond to the dogs.