LIVING AND DYING WITH BLACK BEARS
LIVING AND DYING WITH BLACK BEARS
By William J. Carpenter
Written in memory of Casey-JoI (Border Collie circa 1988 – August 25th, 2003)
August 25th, 2003 was a tragic day at Moraine Point, NWT (61° 36.2′ N & 115° 38.00′ W) on the west shore of Great Slave Lake where my ex-wife and I resided at the time. During her 6th attempt to chase black bears off our property since August 20th, and although assisted by 4 of our Canadian Eskimo DogsII, Casey was killed by a bear. I was also attacked and bitten on the right upper arm by the same bear, with my life likely saved by the aggressive and fierce reaction of my dogs that immediately attacked the bear while he was upon me, thus giving me a chance to escape. Before I go into the details let me provide a little background.
I have been involved with Moraine Point and area for nearly 23 years as it is the location of my lodge and I have always fully recognized that it was in the heart of black bear country. The near by Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC) fish packing plant that had operated every summer was a prime attraction for bears. Not only was it a constant source of fish scent as an attraction for bears, but it was in the past a summer food source for my dogs. Also on a regular basis culled (unmarketable) fish were taken from the FFMC plant to the far side of Moraine Bay and dumped just offshore. The food source had fed many of the resident bears for several generations and even several wolves for all the 23 summers that I have spent at Moraine Point Lodge located only 2 km from the plant. I have always taken the approach that as we are in their territory we need to keep a tidy clean camp so that we do not attract the bears. However if we did see a bear, I have focused on deterring the bears or chasing the bears off by way of all acceptable means including bear banger guns, various noise makers, throwing rocks and the use of dogs that have been at our lodge. I have never viewed the bears as a serious problem at Moraine Point although our former business partners John and Cristine Bayly may disagree as a bear during one summer back in the early 1980’s did swipe or bite at Cristine while she was in a tent.
Over the many summers that I had spent at Moraine Point the bears were more of a problem to the FFMC and fishermen or perhaps their level of tolerance for the bears had been lower than mine. I personally did not agreed with the solutions at the fish plant as often the fishermen or the FFMC plant employees seem to have focused entirely on killing all bears. In fact one summer approximately 12 bears were shot including 2 cubs that were left hanging in the trees after they were killed. Over the years I have personally deterred numerous bears from remaining in the proximity of our lodge and until last year I never had to destroy a problem bear. Casey and at least one Eskimo Dog were always with us in recent years and in 1996 Casey was fitted with a set of bells she wore around her neck so we would know her whereabouts. To the amusement of many, she even wore them in Yellowknife. On September 1st, 2002 my wife (at the time) and I moved permanently to Moraine Point and shortly after our arrival we did encounter one bear that persisted in try to acquire food from our dogs and in spite of numerous attempts over several days at chasing him off, he finally crossed the magic line and attacked and slightly injured a tied up dog. It this point I took corrective measures and killed the bear and reported the kill to the Hay River office of Resources Wildlife and Economic Development (RWED). Upon examination the dead bear was found to be middle aged; but had a recent bullet wound to the abdomen resulting in a herniated and infected area under the skin. It was likely the same bear that was shot at the FFMC plant some weeks earlier with a 30-30 caliber rifle.
In general I have personally taken the approach that it was still quite fine to occasionally see bears or any other wildlife for that matter provided that they were not of danger to me or any of my guests or friends. After all we have been pleased to see moose, caribou, bison, wolverine, wolves, foxes, martin so why not bears.
The summer, 2003 was different, as for a start the FFMC plant due to economic reasons did not open. Yet amazingly we saw no bears until August 20th. We had expected to see bears much earlier but concluded perhaps falsely that they were successful in acquiring food on their own after the closure of the fish plant.
Bear 1-2003 as I numbered our first sighting, showed up on the shoreline in front of the lodge early in the morning of August 20th and it was headed for the dogs that were tied on the beach. None of the dogs were loose and Casey was in the house. The bear was approaching the dogs just as I opened the front door to yell at him. Before I yelled he had reacted to the noisy dogs, which by then were causing quite a fuss and he turned to go back in the direction he came from. I ran down and released 4 of the dogs that were buddies to Casey and called her to have them all chase after the bear as has been our routine to deter any intruding bear. True to form, the task was undertaken with the same eagerness and excitement and led by Casey off they went in full pursuitIII of the bear.
Bear sighting 2-2003 occurred on the morning of August 21st just prior to our planned departure to Yellowknife. This bear (whether it was the same bear as 1-2003 I do not know) was at our compost barrels but also chased off by Casey and her 4 Eskimo Dog companions. While away for 2 days the dogs (a total of 14 Eskimo Dogs and Casey) were all tied along the beach on a chain that had movement on end cables to allow each dog to have access to the lake water). Casey was happily and safely located between Kurugrook and Whiskers two of her favorite dogs.
Bear sighting 3-2003 occurred upon our return to Moraine Point late on Saturday afternoon August 23rd but it was over at the old FFMC plant where the pilot had to land the airplane due to rough water in front of our home. This bear appeared as a tall, long legged thin bear that was up on the wooden dock pacing back and forth as if wanting to reach out to us as he stretched his neck out over the water. The pilot taxied the plane back and forth waiting for the bear to leave, then after several minutes the bear then went down to our docking site on the shore and came out into the water a couple of feetIV The pilot shut off the engine and we shouted loudly at the bear and banged the side of the aircraft to make additional noise. In short order the bear moved off allowing us to dock the plane. He was last seen going into the bush right on the trail that led to our place. After unloading we left our gear and supplies in a building at the plant and noisily walked home being sure to watch for the bear. Although we did not see any bears, we saw 7 piles of bear droppings on the 2 km trail home. Upon arrival at the house we saw very fresh bear droppings right adjacent to the house and the garbage burning barrel was knocked over with all the burned cans spread out.
Without incident we returned to the fish plant with our Honda Trike and wagon for our supplies taking with us Casey and the 4 dogs plus we carried a bear banger. These 5 dogs remained loose around our house after we returned.
That evening just after supper, we heard the other dogs on the beach raising a fuss and noted a bear on the shore just beyond the furthest tied dogs. This being bear sighting 4-2003 was dealt with in the same usual manner in that I carried a bear banger, took Casey and the 4 loose dogs down and within moments they too saw the bear and gave chase sending the bear into the bush and uphill away from the lodge.
The next day Sunday August 24th, bear sighting 5-2003 occurred just outside of the small cabin about 100 ft from the main lodge. With out any need for assistance or encouragement the dogs, being Casey, Kurugrook, Spirit, Whiskers and Edéhzhíe again chased off the bear with no further sightings that day.
All the dogs except Casey spend the night loose outside. In the morning August 25th at approximately 8 AM Casey was eager to go out and I let her out but noticed that the other dogs were not present. I observed that Casey roamed around the yard with her hackles up and was keenly interested in something. Shortly after I saw that the others dogs were all returning very excited having just come in from the forest. Casey immediately joined her companions and within minutes they ran off with Casey at the lead and we heard her loud barkingV off in the forest as she does when she encounters an animal of any kind.
I was about to put on boots to follow them when something very noticeable occurred. Casey’s barking ended and suddenly from off in the forest I heard the long drawn out stress call of the 4 Eskimo Dogs all giving off their low deep pitched “woof – woof – woof”. A few minutes later just as I got outside all 4 Eskimo Dogs eagerly greeted me but no Casey, which at first appeared normal as she is often first after a bear and last to return. However after a few minutes and with no Casey in sight and with no distant barking or sounds of her bells at all, I thought perhaps something was wrong. I also saw that Kurugrook has a sizeable bleeding gash across his forehead just above his eyes. I did not know exactly quite what direction or route to take to look for her but as I entered the lower land behind one of the old buildings it was clear that the dogs wanted to go in one particular direction and not any other. I kept saying lets find Casey. Foolishly, as hindsight now tells me, I was on my way without a rifle but was carrying only the bear banger with 6 shots and one projectile unit that serves as an option to send off a unit that explodes at a distance with a very loud bang.
Unusual about this trip with the dogs was also that Spirit (who is subordinate to his father Kurugrook) was eagerly leading the way (something Kurugrook never allowed him to do) and he was most definite about his route which was with a pronounced right turn off the main path going up Cranberry Hill as we call the trail I was on. The other dogs followed him as I did and he then stopped and waited not just for them, but as soon as I was near he turned this time to the right and went uphill striking off on a new but definite route and stopped and waited again. By this time the dogs were all with hackles up and acting very alert stopping and smelling ahead and looking up the hill. Spirit led us on a bit further through a small clearing and then into denser forest and suddenly there it was bear sighting 6-2003. Some 45 feet ahead of me in the forest and far too close was a black bear. The dogs were immediately giving their stress “woof – woof- woof” and were running at the bear that was standing over dear Casey who was obviously dead and being eaten.
Hind sight again is wonderful and I now know that I should have quickly retreated and gone home for my rifle, but I did not. Instead, almost in anger at seeing the bear eating my daughter’s dog, I raised the bear banger, inserted the one projectile unit and fired the gun wanting to scare off the bear from Casey. I saw the projectile land in front of the bear exactly where I aimed but to my amazement and shock the projectile was a dud and went off with a low “poof” and a bit of smoke instead of the extremely loud bang or boom that was suppose to occur. Within a split second the bear charged me running full speed the 45 feet and it was not a bluff. With full knowledge from all I have readVI and heard that we are not suppose to run from a bear attack, I don’t think I would have had time to run far (prosthetic knee and all) even if I wanted to, for in less than a heartbeat the bear was at me, up on his hind legs and had his jaws clenched onto my right upper arm at the triceps area. This was not a bluff but certainly was a provoked bear protecting a food cache. I knew I was in big trouble and with the bear’s head within a foot of mine as he held onto my arm I think I quickly punched him in the nose with my left fist (left handed punches were always my best defense since a kid), and I yelled at him as loud as I could. Or maybe I yelled first and then punched, but in either case the entire scene caused a reaction from the dogs too, and the next thing I realized was that 2 of the four dogs were fiercely attacking the bear from below and suddenly I was free. With the dogs now between me and the bear I immediately looked for a retreat route and I recall the odd decision I was making and that was to select a route with thick bush and trees for protection in case he attacked again, or to go for the easiest but unprotected route. With the bear having moved back over Casey again, I quickly retreated by the easier route. I called the dogs and headed back home realizing I had a sore upper arm from the bear bite. In a few minutes I was at the house and met by my ex-wife who was very concerned as she heard the story of Casey’s death and my brush with the bear.
I checked my arm and saw that it was not a serious wound. The top of the triceps had two upper canine teeth marks and on the underside there was a single but deeper abrasion from a lower canine tooth. We applied a topical antibiotic ointment to the area. The oddity was that there was only one lower canine mark and having dealt with carnivore bites at my veterinary clinic over the years I was expecting to see 4 canine tooth marks. We next proceeded with plans to return to the site with our guns to kill the bear. I first phoned the RWED office in Hay River and reported the incident to Al Helmer the Resource Management Officer and advised that I was going to shoot the bear.
My ex-wife had our 20 gauge shotgun loaded with 3 shells that were the lead slugs instead of birdshot and I was with the 300 Winchester Magnum rifle and we headed back to the area accompanied by the 4 Eskimo Dogs. The plan was to each be in position to see the bear when we approached the area and to have one of us take the easiest shot while the other acted as a backup. As we carefully worked our way back, following the retreat route that I had earlier used, we carefully noted where we were in proximity to the kill site and the dogs grew more excited as we approached. However as they were well in front of us I knew we would have some warning, but it may call for quick action if the bear came out to meet us.
As expected the bear was found at the site and in fact briefly rushed out a few feet to challenge one of the dogs. All 4 dogs had actually formed a bit of a semi circle around the bear but as all were between us and the bear it was a matter of taking careful aim at the bear without risking a dog as all were constantly moving but occasionally stopping. The moment came and I aimed at the shoulder area and fired my rifle. The bear was hit, ran about 10 feet and fell whereupon I shot it again. The dogs immediately let out their woofing sound and each ran in and out from the downed bear. We discovered that the bear had already buried Casey with moss and other vegetation. The dogs came over to sniff her showing great interest with Kurugrook even pawing at her foot as he often did to get her to react to his playing. Whiskers showed the most reaction and repeatedly came and smelled Casey and then would go to directly back to the bear letting out a long and unusual scolding type noise as a cross between her distress “woof’ and an angry short “howl”. She repeated this behavior often with her brother Edéhzhíe joining in too. We briefly looked around the area and left to get the Honda Trike and wagon to take back Casey’s remains.
When back at the house I phoned to the RWED Hay River number and was immediately asked by the woman on the phone if we got the bear. I replied yes and she expressed her concern that we had so much trouble and had lost a dog during the incident. After taking a short break we made plans to retrieve Casey and again returned to the site with the dogs and carrying our firearms. Upon arrival at the site, Whiskers was very vocal again, so I took the bells of Casey’s neck and called over Whiskers as the dog that perhaps would be as courageous and eager to deter bears as Casey had been and put the collar with bells on her neck.
We arrived back with Casey’s remains and decided to bury her in front of the house at an area that she often lay in the sun. It was a sad afternoon and although I am not a person who personifies my dogs, and while I do treat them as “work” animals, there did seem to be some sort of awareness by the 4 Eskimo Dogs that something was not right. We dug a grave in the glacial till that made up the under burden beneath a thin layer of black humus. As if to watch and supervise the digging event Casey’s head hung slightly out of the box, and the other dogs simply lay about on the grass as we completed the task. Before closing the grave, I clipped a snip of hair from the 4 dogs and from their heads and I placed all of it with Casey. What occurred for the rest of the day was a great deal of mourning and a re-examination of the entire event. The dogs seldom left the grave area and as we went into evening, over 5 hours later, Spirit (the dog, which in such a pronounced manner led me back to where the bear had killed Casey) was the only dog remaining. He was still sleeping next to the area when morning came, and was ignoring the other dogs.
August 26th, 2003, the day went well and we partially returned to doing normal work. After supper I decided to pump water and with two dogs. Whiskers and Edéhzhíe accompanying me I went to the pump located at the shore of the lake in front of the house. When I saw that the tank was full, I shut off the pump and returned to the house. Five minutes late I was looking out the parlor window having a coffee when suddenly I heard the bells of Whiskers and saw her and Edéhzhíe running down to the lake shore by the water pump all excited. It was bear sighting 7-2003, and I knew that there was more than one bear in the vicinity of my camp. The bear was heading towards the beach where the other dogs were tied up. I ran and got my rifle and as I fired a quick shot over the bear the 2 dogs quickly moved in close to the bear and turned it back in the direction it had come from. As it was retreating and being chased by the dogs I fired another warning shot which proved to be a real stimulus for the dogs and they chased him even harder for a few more dozen yards. With the dogs and carrying the gun I made my way down the shoreline for a very short distance to see if the bear was still around. However as it was near dark I did not linger long and returned back to the house, with the two dogs very excited and worked up over the chase.
August 28th, 2003, after a full day of no bears I decided to retrieve the bear carcass out of the bush as it was near our trail and likely would attract other hungry bears or predators. With the Edéhzhíe, Whiskers and Spirit as the dogs, I took the Honda Trike and wagon plus chains and cables to haul the bear out of the dense forest. I carried a gun for protection. Without incident I hauled the bear out and placed it out in the open at the end of the gravel point just opposite our house and visible across our own cove. The bear served as fall dining for the insects, ravens, gulls and later eagles. Throughout the coming winter it may feed the occasional weasel, wolverine or wolf and by spring it will have played its role in fertilizing the shore or nearby water.
From August 20th to August 26th, 2003 there were 7 bear sightings at Moraine Point which proved to be more than one bear. Using dogs as the main focus of a bear deterrent program did cost the life of one dog. She was “Casey” a very active 14 year old Border Collie who with several of our Canadian Eskimo dogs was always there to lead the chase and attack any intruding black bear. The same bear (# 6- 2003) also bit me on the right upper arm and I attribute the lack of no additional injuries to the fierce response of some of my dogs who attacked the bear while it was biting me.
With the closure of the Moraine Bay FFMC plant in the summer of 2003, there was a potential black bear problem as several generations of bears have grown up, effectively being well fed bears from the regular disposal of culled fish that were dumped on or near the shoreline on the opposite side of the bay from the plant. These bears may not have learned to be active hunters or predators and with this food source ending, they may pose a danger for the next few years until they disperse or are eliminated by natural or other means. In spite of the loss of one of my dogs, I still conclude that having several loose Inuit dogs around the yard is likely the most workable bear deterrent program for our location.
Happy hunting in doggy heaven Casey, Lara and I will miss you.
I Casey-Jo was originally my daughter’s dog but as with many parents I inherited the family dog for my keeping when Lara headed off to university in 1990. She was known to many who visited my Bowspringer Kennels & Veterinary Clinic in Yellowknife as the yard dog who greeted all in a friendly manner. Casey was also well known for her natural herding instincts as she would help round up any Eskimo Dog puppies that I let loose in our Yellowknife yard and it was during one of those times in 1999 that she first met a little pup who was strong and bold. My Inuit friends who saw him told me to name him Kurugrook which means “strong little man”
II The oldest of these 4 dogs was Kurugrook born in 1999 in Yellowknife but much of his life has been at Moraine Point. His son “Spirit” was born in Yellowknife in 2002 but raised since the age of 3 months at Moraine Point. The other 2 dogs were sister and brother “Whiskers” and “Edéhzhíe” born on the first day of fall 2002 at Moraine Point.
III The eager pursuit was all part of a game that Casey played as the old matriarch dog who had directed the behavior of all our recently raised 7 dogs over the last few summers. Her game was to chase squirrels with the assistance of the then puppies that as they grew older continued to have a subordinate yet protective behavior to this dear old girl and were eager to give chase in support of her interests. This often was with any small mammal such as foxes and squirrels but occasionally with Boreal Bison who ventured into our side of the point and the same behavior occurred fortunately with black bears. It all served as good warning to us that some animal was in the vicinity and we therefore were alerted. In the spring of 2001 Casey and Kurugrook chased off one spring bear freshly out of hibernation 3 or 4 times before it learned to stay away.
IV This was fairly typical behavior for Moraine Bay bears who often ventured out into the water on the far side of the bay to meet the boat dumping culled fish.
V The Eskimo Dogs do not bark as do other domestic breeds of dogs, but rather are very vocal with a high pitched whine or howl,. When under extreme stress, or danger however they do sound a pronounced alarm in the way of a slow drawn out “woof – woof – woof” all in a low deep pitch.
VI It was only the night before that I was reading out the bear section in “Survival Secrets” (Brian Emdin, 2002, Spotted Cow Press Ltd), which said “In bear country you are more likely to be struck by lightning than attached by a bear.”