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Leading the Charge—Bear Hazing in Southeast Alaska
It’s no surprise that fish hatcheries in Alaska are magnets for bears. Take Port Armstrong Hatchery in Southeast, a powerful draw for Baranof Island brown bears. Manager Ben Contag once counted 36 individuals in his two minute walk to work and hatchery staff have tried about everything to keep hungry roaming bruins in their place: electric fences, whistles, seal bombs, cracker shells, pepper spray, giant potato guns packed with modeling clay, a lot of yelling and screaming, and—as a rare last resort—shooting to kill under Defense of Life and Property rules.
Even so, when a state biologist proposed testing a new hazing tool from Taser International, Contag had his doubts. He’d seen too many so-called non-lethal or less lethal methods do actual harm to bears and only make matters worse.
“You’re throwing money out the door and making an angry bear,” Contag said. “When the Taser thing first started, I was against it thinking the bears would get upset at us.”
But he quickly changed his mind. The tasered bears would go away—and fast—but they didn’t go away mad, he said. Now the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) has issued the first permit of its kind authorizing Contag and other trained staff at the private non-profit hatchery to use the Electronic Control Devices, or ECDs, to keep bears at bay.
The agency is evaluating the device as a new tool in a kit of wildlife managers’ options, according to Soldotna-based ADF&G wildlife technician Larry Lewis. So far ECDs have shown promise in teaching animals where they’re welcome and where they’re not, he said, “and the people that live at Port Armstrong are really enthusiastic, which led to this whole new structured thing of actually training the non-governmental people there to continue on with our efforts.”
Lewis began exploring the use of ECDs eight years ago. He and a state trooper were trying to extract two moose calves trapped in the foundation of a home construction site when they were charged by the mother. After she had chased them around the patrol car three times, the trooper pulled his Taser and shot her. Stunned and immobilized, the moose hit the ground. The leads pulled free as it fell and the moose sprang up, ran into the woods and stayed there long enough for the men to rescue the calves and retreat safely.
Lewis was intrigued. He enlisted the help of others in the agency and they began to study both the physical and behavioral effects of Tasers on moose. The physical effects appeared to cause no lasting harm. An ECD fires two dart-like electrodes that are connected to conductive wires. Upon contact, an electrical current pulses between the two probes and disrupts the body’s voluntary control of muscles, causing what’s known as neuromuscular incapacitation. ADF&G’s blood chemistry analysis showed the stress on a moose from tasering was higher than the stress caused by a drug dosage capture but it didn’t last as long.
“It was kind of a wash and we didn’t kill anything so we figured these animals could handle the stress,” said Lewis. “Meanwhile, we were seeing positive aversive reactions to human presence so we said ‘Let’s move forward and try it with bears.’”
Sitka area management biologist Phil Mooney immediately thought of Port Armstrong. The facility on the southeast tip of Baranof Island produces more than 100 million salmon annually, mostly pink and chum. As a yearly glut of fish crowds the mouth of a short and fairly narrow stream, scores of bears show up for the easy pickings and their numbers have only grown over the years as generations of cubs raised on hatchery fish continued to return as adults, many with their own cubs in tow.
Humans include a handful of seasonal workers and seven year-round staff. Though heavily outnumbered, they’ve built comfortable, albeit well-fortified, lives and raised their young in trim homes lining the boardwalk. Vegetables flourish in tidy raised beds surrounded by stout fencing, domestic goats, ducks and rabbits lead tranquil lives in electrified pens and, for two months a year as a late coho run streams in, children don’t leave home without an armed escort.
Manager Ben Contag said residents take their responsibility to the bears seriously. After all, it’s the hatchery’s success that’s attracted them to the area. He’s proud that only two or three bears have been put down during his eight year tenure, the last one in 2009.
“I love listening to them the whole night long in October when they’re all fighting and growling and it sounds like Jurassic Park,” said Contag. “We have a pretty unique thing and we’ve done a good job of not destroying bears.”
Mooney said the hatchery is an ideal test location given its history of cooperation with ADF&G on bear issues, the seasonal concentration of bears and people, and elevated boardwalks that allow people to safely approach a bear within Taser range. Before the trials got started though, the Taser team wanted to be sure they had the proper tool. So they experimented with a prototype at the Yakutat landfill, aiming at collared bears from junked cars. Although the device was specifically tailored for a large bulky animal (it has a charge of 120 microcoulombs and rate of 29 pulses per second as opposed to law enforcement’s 63 microcoulombs and 19 pulses per second), it was challenging to use.
“The cartridges were much shorter, 25 foot max. They only had one shot like the law enforcement models plus you didn’t have a good sighting system. The Tasers were developed for human targets, a vertical target, so you had to roll it over gangster-style to be able to sight it at a bear,” Mooney said.
Eventually they did hit a bear in the 800 pound range and were able to tell from the collar data that it immediately left the area and stayed away for a few days before returning. Following the Yakutat experience, they worked with Taser International to redesign the unit, called the X3W®, to incorporate three cartridges extending 35 feet; software that controlled the run-time of the charge (instead of having to hold down the trigger); and a two-dot laser sighting system, which greatly enhanced the accuracy of their aim.
Testing at Port Armstrong began in 2010 using aversive conditioning: a methodical application of hazing to bring about long-term behavioral change. Bears were allowed to access the stream but if they stepped into the work area, they were tasered and yelled at immediately. Mooney said bruins clearly did not like being knocked down but they didn’t all react the same.
“It’s the only device I’ve used where a sow will leave her cubs and move off 40 or 50 meters, sit down and call her cubs to her,” he said. In that instance, the sow carried on as usual, moving her two cubs of the year to another part of the bay that had access to fish but fewer man-made boundaries. Mooney said she remembered the experience, however. Later, a person yelling was all it took to steer her clear of the boardwalk and hatchery.
Unaccompanied sub-adult bears also tended to stay in the area after being tasered, running about 500 meters then waiting, “because if they went any further they’d get into the area with the bigger bears and get themselves picked off,” said Mooney. “So it was a good lesson that there are some bear social limitations also influencing their behavior if you get into a situation like this.”
And what about the biggest brawniest bruins? They fled.
“Mentally, I think it messes with the big bears much more,” Mooney said. The ECD abruptly terminates the normal chain of posturing in a bear/human encounter and leaves the bear sprawling helpless on the ground. “They can see and hear everything going on around them but they can’t get up for ‘Fight or Flight’ while we’re there yelling at them,” he said. “After they get up, they have this look of disbelief—especially the older alpha bears—and they’re gone. We’ve had bears go eight miles and sit down and wonder what just happened.”
Not for long, though. Mooney said they would return at night, seemingly aware that the humans couldn’t see them. “They would rely instead on their excellent sense of smell to navigate in the dark while we were limited to the length of our flashlight beam to see what was going on,” he said. So the team returned the next year with a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) device, a thermal night vision camera that allowed them to see the bears in the dark.
“That further confused them and helped to level the playing field for us,” he said. “It’s been a game trying to figure out behaviorally how they’re going to react. But the thing we’ve got now is that as of today we have treated 110 brown bears and we have not had one bear stand and take a second hit (as often happens with rubber bullets). We have had 100% flight response, which is amazing.”
Success notwithstanding, it’s unclear how far ADF&G will take the use of ECDs. Taser International, tired of waiting for sales to pick up, recently stopped manufacturing the X3W®. Lewis said interest is growing but the device needs to be fully vetted—and that’s part of what’s happening at Port Armstrong. A master trainer for Taser, he has provided training to wildlife managers in Alaska, Colorado and Nevada and was ready to do the same in California when Taser discontinued the unit. Besides the work on moose and bears, the device has also been tested successfully on javelinas in Arizona, and members of the Taser team have received inquiries about its potential for such diverse species as polar bears, California mountain lions, mule deer, Japanese black bears and rhinoceros.
Mooney said ADF&G, with engineering, development, and medical support from Taser International, has led the research into wildlife ECDs and will continue the work. The agency currently owns about a dozen units, which cost about $1,999 per unit retail. A recent experiment to drive muskox off the Nome runway was inconclusive. The animals’ flowing fur made it difficult to land the probes, however, a warning arc feature on the device did appear to scare them. An ADF&G team, including Lewis, Mooney, Neil Barten, and Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen, is currently working with the University of Alaska Fairbanks to compare the effects of ECDs with drug use in the capture of reindeer.
Lewis and Mooney are also looking into audio hazing technologies to be used in conjunction with ECDs and other methods of delivering an electrical charge. Lewis has approached an electric fence company called Deer Guard about a detection system that triggers an audio recording of a voice yelling as soon as a moose or bear comes within 45 feet. The idea is to associate the human voice with the bad experience of an electrical shock, he said. Mooney is planning to record the audio of an alpha bear’s roar when it’s hit by a Taser. From watching at night through the FLIR device, he knows that other bears run off at the sound and he’s hoping a good recording will have the same effect. “They seem to know a big bear, an alpha, is in trouble. I think they figure whatever happened to that bear could happen to them too,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lewis said he’s trying hard to convince either Taser to restart the X3W® line or another manufacturer to develop a similar ECD. He’s sold on the device and believes the Port Armstrong experience will demonstrate its value. Mooney said the hatchery will be a good proving ground.
“They (Port Armstrong staff) do not want the bears killed, and they’ve demonstrated over the years that it’s their last choice,” he said. “If anyone can make this work in a real life situation, they’re the ones to do it.”
Anne Sutton is a longtime Alaska journalist and serves as the coordinator of ADF&G’s Wildlife Viewing Program.
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