A meddlesome moose at the Denali Park Sled Dog Kennels and an increase in unexpected, sometimes dangerous encounters between visitors and moose led park managers to try something new this year.
They turned to Karelian bear dogs Rio and Soledad and their expert handler, Nils Pedersen, of Fairbanks.
“Over the last few days, we’ve had some aggressive moose creating some challenges with visitors in the dog kennels that are in the park,” said Dave Schirokauer, chief of cultural and natural resources at Denali National Park. “So we contracted with the Wind River Karelian Bear Dog Institute. He is helping our wildlife folks adversely condition moose, to keep moose out of harm’s way and to keep visitors safe.”
For Pat Owen, who oversees the wildlife/biological program at the park, it was an experiment that had a successful outcome.
“We were really, really pleased with how effective they were,” she said. “It was really satisfying after all the time we’ve spent trying to get moose to move. I and my staff have thrown everything we have at them, with basically zero success.
“We were pretty anxious to have an opportunity to try out the dogs. It’s something we’ve been talking about for awhile.”
Pedersen and his two dogs worked at the park for five days this week, usually at about 7 a.m. and then at midnight when the moose are active. The most serious threat was a cow moose hanging around the Denali kennel. It was a regular visitor, browsing on nearby foliage. Then one night, for some unknown reason, it decided to attack some dogs.
“I tell people all the time, moose could arguably be the most dangerous animal in Alaska,” Pedersen said. “They become habituated to areas populated by people, setting the stage for a dangerous conflict between humans and animals.
“You would think all the barking (of the kennel dogs) would dissuade them, but that is not the case,” Pedersen said. “The moose, and bears for that matter, figure out pretty quick these dogs are on chains and not able to come after them. They understand it’s not a threat.”
That all changes with the Karelian bear dogs. When the dogs spot the moose, they bark aggressively.
“A deep growl and a bark are defensive,” he said. “But these dogs are frenzied, yipping and that is much more concerning to one of these animals.”
The cow moose retreated and to make sure it got the message, a bear technician splattered its rear end with paintballs. Then they made sure it was really leaving.
“Moose often run 20 feet, then just stop and keep doing exactly what they were doing before,” Pedersen said. His job is to make sure the moose continues its retreat.
His dogs are always on a leash because their instinct, if loose, will be to corral the moose and keep it in one spot. That’s what these hunting dogs have been bred to do, for centuries. But in this case, everyone wants the moose to leave. So despite their frenzy, the dogs remain harnessed to Pedersen, attached to his hip belt.
“They are lucky these dogs are on a leash,” Pedersen said. “We pursued the moose maybe 100 meters or so. We all had powerful headlamps. You’d never do something like that without the dogs, it wouldn’t be safe.
“The moose is not thinking about coming back on us. It’s thinking how to get away from us.”
Moose are prey animals with a fight or flight mentality. The key is to safely pursue them, but not push them over the edge so they feel compelled to fight. They can’t be cornered, they have to have a clear path to get away. Pedersen and the dogs nudge them toward that escape route.
“We’re not chasing them,” he said. “I don’t want them to be afraid and run. I want the message to be very clear. We are not going to relieve the pressure until you do the right thing.”
“Teach your wildlife well” is the motto of his organization.
“We have to train these animals how to make the right choices,” he added.
The moose’s reward for leaving? The dogs stop barking and stop pursuing.
Since meeting that moose at the kennel, he and the dogs have also put pressure on a young bull, two other cows and two cows with calves. They were all in the area above the kennel or in the headquarters area. One was at C Camp and another was at the Riley Creek Bridge.
He and the Denali Park biologists have not had to use paint balls much, because the dogs have been reason enough for the moose to move on.
“Moose get habituated, but they do not get habituated to these dogs,” he said. “The dogs find them, so the animals can’t be sneaky and come back around. The dogs pursue them.”
If the dogs were let loose, they might also nip at the moose, so he avoids that option.
Moose often show up in populated areas of the park to drop their calves and seek refuge from predators like bears and wolves.
“We have to tip the scales a little bit so the cost of spending time in the human area is not beneficial,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they can’t be in these areas. If people are around, they need to be avoiding them.”
At the kennels, the park has now cut down all the willows in the surrounding area, removing part of what attracted moose there in the first place. A fence has also been erected around the dog yard.
Meanwhile, Pedersen was pretty happy to show the park what his dogs can do and the important role they can play in educating the public. The dogs are personable and as demonstrated this week, an effective nonlethal method of deterring wildlife.
“In 24 years of doing this, we’ve never had an injury to a bear, dog or person,” he said.
Deterring moose was new, but also successful.
“I felt really good about what we accomplished,” Owen said. “Everything about it was positive. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.”
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at email@example.com. Call her at the office 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.