Montana Public Radio

How These Fearless Dogs Help Keep Grizzlies On Their Toes

May 20, 2019

Grizzly bear populations across the state are growing, as is talk about how to minimize human-bear conflict. A Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks report released in April showed wildlife officials in northwest Montana received about 150 calls related to grizzly conflicts last year.

Some people, like residents of the Rocky Mountain Front, have dealt with the bears for a long time. MTPR's Rosie Costain reports on one of these conflict-reducing methods: dogs.

Rancher John Long, his wife, and three daughters live on a paved, house-lined street in Choteau. A park is just down the block, and Spring Creek flows nearby. In the summer, Long regularly gets calls from a system set up to warn Choteau’s residents of uninvited neighborhood visitors: grizzly bears.

"The majority of the bears are right over there. Not here at the park but like three streets down on the first street in town. They're over there messing around."

Long has lived in Choteau since he was a kid. And grizzlies have always been a part of that life, both when he’s out in the mountains and even when he’s at his house. It’s not unheard of for a bear to wander through town.

"I've lived here my whole life so it isn't like I'm walking around on eggshells by any means. But yeah, it's something that we think about, we think about with our kids."

The park in Choteau, Mont. at the end of the street John Long lives on.
Credit Rosie Costain / Montana Public radio

Living with grizzly bears is something people have to deal with on the Rocky Mountain Front. And Augusta rancher Gene Swanson is especially familiar with these creatures.

"Thirty years ago I could have told you how many different bear I seen in the whole spring to fall season around here. Anymore, you just kind of lose count. They're a pretty common experience," Swanson says.

It’s hard to live much closer to the Front than Swanson. His cattle ranch sits along a stretch of creek bottom in the foothills of the mountains, about 10 miles outside of Augusta. The town isn’t far from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which holds the largest population of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states.

A view of the Rocky Mountains from the dirt road on the way to Gene Swanson's house outside of Augusta, Mont.
Credit Rosie Costain

But the slender 70-year old has figured out how to deal with grizzlies, to an extent. When he’s out working, or in the house, he has a warning system, different from that in Choteau, that tells him when a bear is nearby.

Swanson has four Airedale Terriers. When I pulled up to Swanson’s, one of these dogs, Wiliker, leaned against my legs as Swanson, in a cowboy hat, worn blue jeans, sunglasses and a kerchief around his neck, stepped out of a tractor. Another Airedale, just a puppy, sat in the tractor’s passenger seat.

"They can be a hunting dog or a cow dog, and they can take care of the kids for you," Swanson says.

These wire-haired black and copper-red dogs weigh about 60 to 70 pounds. Despite their small size, these Airedales are able to take-on adult grizzly bears. And with little training. Swanson says he doesn’t teach his dogs much more than how to come and how to go after something. But the dogs have a special tactic.

"I've had them get after them bear pretty serious. The one dog, he always goes to the head, and I've got another dog that goes for the heels. Whether they're after a bear or a cow they'll do the same thing. One of them getting the head and the other getting the heels. And that gets them — bears or cattle — when something goes really aggressively at both ends, they want to leave."

That doesn’t mean they always get away unscathed. His dog Mordecai has a scar across his snout. And Swanson spoke of a couple incidents of dogs being attacked when a single one was left outside alone at night.

Gene Swanson shows a feed barrel smashed by a grizzly bear trying to break into it.
Credit Rosie Costain / Montana Public radio

But for the most part, Swanson’s Airedales are able to help him avoid conflict with bears. Their most important role is letting Swanson know when a grizzly is wandering near his house, along with his barn, other outbuildings and cattle pens. The same goes for when he’s out working on the ranch.

"The major thing with these bears is the fact they're like a rattlesnake. It's the fear of stepping on top of one that bothers you. Once you know where they're at, you know what to do," Swanson says.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Bear Management Specialist Mike Madel says a lot of ranchers have modified their operations to deal with growing bear populations that are expanding further from the mountains. Some have moved their calving operations away from creekbeds or have changed how they store feed. Others have installed electric fences.

Madel, who’s based out of Choteau, says these changes are necessary in order to conserve the bears and get them removed from the endangered species list. But he says he’d like to see more ranchers have dogs as a way to deal grizzlies.

"They’re great at having them go after both grizzly bears and black bears, off leash and chasing bears away from campgrounds or away from ranch buildings. And when you’re out in the field yourself, whether you're backpacking — in my case I'm doing bear management work — in detecting bears that might be behind you or around you, and letting you know where they’re at and what direction they’re at."

Madel says that only applies as long as the dog knows what it’s doing, and won’t bring the bear back. Some of that knowledge comes through training, but part of it can come with a certain breed. He personally has a Karelian bear dog that helps him in the field.

"They've helped me a lot. So I can imagine with Gene and his Airedales, you know, they really do help to keep bears in and away from his buildings."

Madel has known Gene Swanson’s family for years. He says Swanson lives in some of the best wildlife habitat in the state. And the way Swanson has dealt with his surroundings has given Madel a good impression of what an Airedale can do.

"There’s not too many breeds that I think are really good dogs for moving bears away, but Airedales are just unafraid. So they run right at the bear.”

Again, John Long from Choteau. "I have a little girls and we're in the mountains non-stop and this is the perfect breed to have because they are going to tangle."

John Long's Airedales wrestle in his backyard in Choteau, Mont. The dogs may be small, but ranchers say they're a big help in reducing conflicts with grizzly bears.
Credit Rosie Costain / Montana Public Radio

Long has two Airedales, including one he got as a puppy from Gene Swanson.

"If something were needed, if defense was needed these dogs would gladly get into a scuffle. That's no problem. They haven't needed to prove that yet, but they're just right for that. And then you couple that with the fact that you can have hem in the backyard and they're not barking and keeping everyone around you furious with you."

He says whenever he and his family are in the mountains or anywhere a grizzly might be, they bring their dogs. Because of the bear sightings around town, Long sends his dogs with his two younger daughters when they play in the park down the street near the creek. It gives him some peace of mind about living with grizzlies.

"You like 'em, you respect 'em, you enjoy seeing 'em. You just want to keep 'em on their toes more than you have to keep yourself on your toes, that's all."

Long says a good dog can help do just that.