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Wildlife Researcher Recalls His Backcounty Co-pilot
Field Notes

During the mid-1970s, I directed one part of a multi-agency study of the responses of elk to logging in the northern Rockies. My study involved an area in western Montana on which we mapped site-specific annual levels of elk use by counting pellet groups on contour transects. I was always accompanied—and often surprised—by my Norwegian Elkhound, Tigre, who was inclined to herd anything on four legs.

His technique with elk would always start with a sniffing exhibition. He would rise up on his hind legs to get his nose well above the surrounding undergrowth and walk along that way for 10 to 15 feet. Once he was sure of his quarry, he would take off running, but very quietly. At that point, I had no more than five minutes to find a big tree to stand behind. I needed the big tree because the consistency of Tigre’s work was simply outstanding. At the end of his silent run, he would suddenly explode into an army of barking dogs, and shortly thereafter, a herd of elk would come stampeding toward me.

This was not a random occurrence; it happened at least once every year that we did the pellet counts. I cannot imagine how you would ever train a dog to do this. It has to be natural and instinctive, and even that explanation seems a little farfetched unless you’ve seen it happen.

The talent, however, was not confined to elk. One morning, a colleague, Freddy Hartkorn, and I were walking through a field in Lupine Creek to the start points of a couple of transects. Tigre started barking, and I knew right away what it was (you could tell by the tone of the bark what he was herding). I told Freddy, “That’s a bear bark.” We had just come even with a large maple shrub when a big black bear bustled down the hill and turned left.

Imagine the scene, arranged within three corners of an equilateral triangle. The maple is in the middle, Tigre is at the apex, and the two basal angles are occupied on one end by Freddy and me, on the other by a very perplexed bear. After skidding to a halt, he just sat there and looked at us. The expression on his face was absolutely priceless. Tigre was also sitting quietly, although you could almost hear him thinking, There he is, boss. All yours.

The third corner was the one that reacted, or at least Freddy did. He started yelling and waving his arms and carrying on something fierce. Dumb me, I didn’t join in; I was too busy looking at that poor bear’s face and trying to keep from laughing. (It was one of those “you had to be there” moments.) When he finally figured it out, the bear turned around and ran off. Forever after, Freddy was willing to tell anybody who would listen, “That damn dog of Jack’s is really dangerous. He’s going to get somebody killed.”

As it happens, Freddy’s prediction didn’t come true, and Tigre and I had other adventures that also turned out well.

One morning on a pellet route in Burdette Creek, we saw bears on the other side of the drainage, too far away for Tigre to notice. So, later that day, when I was sitting down writing notes and heard an animal stirring around downhill from us, I figured it was another bear. Unusually, Tigre seemed more interested in sitting right next to me rather than chasing it. This behavior aroused my curiosity, so I stood up to have a look. Lucky I did, too. The mountain lion was almost as surprised as I was—I’m sure he thought Tigre’s bobbing white tail belonged to a great big bunny.

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L. Jack Lyon is a retired wildlife research biologist. He is the author of You Have to Be Tough to Live in Montana. He has had only four dogs in his lifetime, all of whom lived to be at least 15 years of age.

PHOTOGRAPH BY L. JACK LYON

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