06/15/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
It's almost impossible to break humans of their irksome habits, so wildlife biologist Carrie Hunt is breaking bad-news bears of theirs. Hunt, 43, uses what she calls "aversion therapy" to teach 500-pound omnivores at Yosemite and Glacier national parks to steer clear of people—no easy task when bears are addicted to the pizza, chips and Twinkies that civilized man persists in leaving about. "A lot of people thought it was impossible to turn bears around safely," says Hunt. "But I knew it could be done."
Saving problem bears has been Hunt's obsession since 1978 when, while working on a study of grizzlies at Yellowstone National Park, she had to shoot a 2-year-old bear deemed dangerous because it kept approaching people too closely—even after it was relocated several times. "It was a horribly sad thing to kill that bear," says Hunt. "I knew there had to be a better way."
The solution she hit on may not be subtle, but it works. After tracking down a problem bear (usually found foraging at night in park garbage), Hunt and park workers chase him with three or four leashed, barking Karelian bear dogs—a breed used by hunters in Finland and Russia. Then she shoots off firecrackers and shouts, "Get out of here, bear!" If the beast doesn't take the hint, Hunt blasts it in the rump with rubber bullets or bean-bags. When the bear retreats, Hunt does too. "It's a way of saying, 'You did the right thing,' " she explains.
Of the 60 bears, including 19 grizzlies, that Hunt put a scare into last summer, most were still "being good" when she left in the fall. Says Hunt: "The more I get to know bears, the more I realize how gentle and willing to avoid trouble they are."