Nevada Department of Wildlife Biologist Carl Lackey and his Karelian bear dogs Rooster and Stryker are local celebrities featured in a National Geographic Channel program titled "The Animal Extractors," a series that explores what happens when the boundaries between cities and natural habitats blur and creatures of all kinds find their way into populated areas looking for food and new places to shelter.
Q: How long have you been with the department of wildlife?
A: Since 1993. Almost 14 years now. The last 10 of that have been as a the biologist here dealing with the bears.
Q: Did you start with the bears or just wildlife in general?
A: I started titling boats in the Reno office and then I moved to a wildlife management area. I Kind of just lucked into the bears. It wasn't planned that way.
Q: How big is the local bear population?
A: We estimate it at somewhere between 200 and 300 animals total in the state and that's restricted to just the far western edge of Nevada.
Q: How are people more of a threat to bears than bears are to people?
A: Well, people are a threat to the bears through constriction and destruction of the habitat. Bears are what you call, I guess, a keystone species. Their abundance and the health of the bear population is indicative of the habitat and the ecosystem in general because they are at the top of the food chain in a lot of instances. So they are an indicator species. They indicate what the ecosystem is doing and the health of the habitat. Bears as a threat to people? There is always that possibility because they are a carnivore. They are a wild animal.
Q: Even black bears?
A: Absolutely. Black bears predaciously kill people. I don't want to say every year in North America but pretty close to at least one instance every year in all of North America. A lot of times down here in the U.S. we've had predacious attacks in Arizona, Colorado, Tennessee. People either have the Disney view of bears or the horrific view that they're out there to attack at the drop of a hat. One extreme or the other but bears really fall somewhere in-between. We've had some people doing some pretty stupid things. What they don't realize is that by habituating the bears to people or by feeding the bears intentionally or unintentionally they are creating a situation where the bears may ultimately have to be killed or are killed because of humans. Mostly by cars, mostly getting hit by cars. Although a few have to be put down for management reasons every year because they become so bold around people that they're approaching people for food and breaking into homes for food and becoming a threat to safety.
Q: Do you relocate bears?
A: We haven't relocated as a general practice since 1996 when I took over the position. We have chosen instead to use on-site releases, meaning releasing right where we catch them or in very close proximity in the bear's home range. And then we subject the bears to the aversive conditioning which is the use of the rubber bullets or pepper spray and Karelian bear dogs and give the bear a real bad experience and teach him that his behavior is unwanted and he's not welcome around people.
Q: What is a Karelian bear dog?
A: It's a Russian and Finnish breed that were originally bred to hunt big game animals and mainly brown bears in Europe and Russia. We're using them here for hazing of problem bears and using them to modify their behavior around people.
Q: How big was the biggest bear you ever encountered?
A: We had several that were 600 pounds, but the biggest was 640 pounds, and that was one of our collared males last year over at Incline Village.
Q: Is that the one that was breaking into places?
A: No, all he's been doing is getting into garbage. We had one up here about a year ago that was tearing doors off of trucks and breaking into garages and stuff, he was 620 pounds. But the 640 pounder is alive and well, as far as I know; he's feeding on all the good food over in Incline.
Q: Smart bear. They are pretty smart, too, right?
A: Oh yeah, they're real smart.
Q: Are they smarter than trappers? Can they dodge people like wolves or are they not considered as smart in the wildlife world?
A: No, there are smart bears; they're curious. I guess their intelligence is driven by their curiosity. Or vice versa. And they can learn from one experience and then remember that behavior, so they're smart in that way, I guess.
Q: There aren't any brown bears around here right?
A: No brown bears, grizzlies, same thing. The closest is going to be up in Yellowstone, Idaho, and I think there's even a possibility of a few over in Washington.
Q: You will be on the National Geographic Channel?
A: It's been a series of about 12 or 13 episodes called ... the "Animal Extractors" is what they ended up calling it. They spent all summer with us last year. Several different film crews kind of took turns, they were from England and they went on every call with us and filmed all kinds of stuff.
Q: Did any good bear stories happen during that time when they were with you?
A: Yeah, but not as good as we've had. We had one in Gardnerville at a youth camp that locked itself into a bathroom and then proceeded to rip sinks off the wall and toilets off the wall and flooded the bathroom. We've had some interesting and hair-raising experiences with bears in homes, breaking into homes and being in the house when we got there. We've had tons of stuff.
Q: How do you track bears?
A: Every bear that we put our hands on we ear tag and tattoo. Tattoo on the inner lip, put in a corresponding number on the ear tag so if we ever catch them again we can positively identify them. We do a lot of collaring with the Wildlife Conservation Society since 1999. I think we've radio collared 60 some odd bears with them over that period and tracked the bears through a VHF signal via radio telemetry. And with the Wildlife Conservation Society, we've put out seven GPS collars that take a fix off a satellite so many times a day and then store that data on the collar so that when you retrieve the collar you have a dot to dot of everywhere that bear was at.
Q: How long do bears live for?
A: In the wild I'd say the average is probably 15 to 20 years they lose their competitiveness after that. But there are bears that have lived to be well over 20 years old. I think the oldest in captivity was 33 years old.
Q: Do people recognize you as the bear guy in public and ask you for your autograph?
A: No, no autographs. Yeah I'm called the bear guy or the bear man, or other things depending on whether they're happy with me or not, but I've never been asked for my autograph. They recognize me or they recognize the dogs. A lot of people see the dogs and make the connection that way.