Sammamish-Issaquah lies along what wildlife biologists call the WUI, Wildland-Urban Interface, as does much of Washington State. The WUI is a line that loosely defines where nature and wildlife is on one side and urban development on the other. Occasionally, wildlife wanders across the line, gets lost, and attracts attention. We have all seen articles stating, “Authorities kill wild animal for public safety.” Most of us (statistics are with me on this) ask, “Why didn’t they relocate it? Why did they kill it?”
Captain Bill Hebner of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife pondered that same question over the years he has served in wildlife enforcement. Before we look at his solution, I want to mention a bit of his background. Bill’s current jurisdiction, North Puget Sound, consists of King, Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, Island, and San Juan counties. Before taking charge of fish and wildlife enforcement in our area, Bill helped to establish the Department’s Statewide Special Investigation Unit in the mid ‘80s. In the early ‘90s, Bill’s undercover investigation into illegal harvesting and selling of steelhead, salmon, and sturgeon, led to the conviction of more than 36 fishermen and fish-buying businesses. Bill has also worked interstate and international cases involving wildlife crimes.
Last year Captain Hebner received a Governor’s Award for Leadership in Management:
“With the belief that bears and humans can co-exist, Captain Bill Hebner initiated a public education and information campaign. He worked with his staff and local media to successfully explain the problem of feeding wildlife and the value of reconditioning offending animals rather than destroying them.”
So, we see that Bill believes that reconditioning is preferable to killing, but how does one ‘recondition’ a bear or cougar?
Dogs! Dogs provided the missing part of the reconditioning solution. Captain Hebner had learned of Karelian bear dogs used in other parts of the world, and pioneered a program for Washington State, the first in the US. Funded entirely by donations, the program has grown to six dogs in four years’ time. Each dog lives with its assigned enforcement officer for life. In addition to reconditioning wildlife,
the dogs also help nose out evidence in poaching cases, and act as community relations ambassadors to law-abiding citizens. You can find more history on the WDFW Karelian Bear Dog program at the Department's KBD page.
Labor Day weekend 2009 represents a proof-of-concept when a cougar (Puma concolor) treed in Seattle’s Discovery Park. KBD Cash aided in a hard release of the lion, which returned to the Cascades to live a natural life in the wild. “Hard release” is the program’s term for returning a wild animal to the wild, but giving the animal a definite dislike of humans and dogs. After officers sedate or trap an errant animal, the animal usually receives a health check-up, a tag or a tracking collar, and once it's fully awake and aware, release it to a cacophony of barking KBDs, shouting humans, firecrackers, and the ignominy of a few stinging pellets as it exits from the scene. Current estimates are that 80% of the bear releasees avoid people afterwards. Here is a video of several bear releases. You can view a hard release of a cougar.
By now, you’ve figured out the solution developed by Captain Hebner and other enforcement officers and wildlife biologists—using fearless Karelian bear dogs to make wildlife aware of the dangers of civilization. The KBD officers use a scientific approach, honing their release techniques based on information gathered from earlier releases. The KBD program is win-win for people and wildlife. Its success is causing wildlife conservation groups and other states’ agencies to look at the lessons developed and learned here in Washington.
When you have that sense of relief on hearing that a bear or cougar safely returned to the wild, instead of authorities killing it for getting lost in town, you know that it’s because wildlife officers like Bill Hebner have questioned the old methods, and worked to develop better ways.
On March 15, 2012, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded Captain Hebner the National Guy Bradley Award for outstanding lifetime service and achievements in wildlife law enforcement. A tough law enforcement officer, Bill has also shown that brains often serve better ends than do bullets.