By Molly Shen
INDEX, Wash. -- A group of Snohomish County school kids had a special lesson about living around wildlife on Friday. It was part education, part retirement party.
One of the teachers was the state's first Karelian Bear Dog, Mishka, who is about to retire.
Karelian bear dogs and their wildlife department handlers teach people how to live safely in bear country. At this event, the job normally done by one dog took five, as the group honored Mishka.
"When you see that dog, you're looking at history," Officer Bruce Richards told the crowd.
Mishka was not only our state's first KBD, he was the first to work with a wildlife enforcement officer.
"These dogs are the first ones in the United States," Officers Richards said. "There have been some by biologists, but for game wardens using these dogs, these are the first ones to save wildlife. And for that, I'm incredibly proud."
The program is a point of pride for Richards because he's credited with saving it. Richards, who is also retiring, has been on the job 41 years. The last eight were with Mishka. Richards became the handler when biologist Rocky Spencer died on the job.
Instead of ending the program, Richards and Mishka proved it should expand. There are six dogs on the job right now with plans to add as many as four more.
Officer Nick Jorg is the handler for KBD Colter.
"I can't imagine not having these KBDs anymore on so many aspects. From resolving human wildlife conflicts between bears or cougars, whether it's helping save a big horn sheep and herding them away from a highway, or hazing a moose out of a city or finding evidence for poaching cases, these dogs have made several big game poaching cases and even a couple of fish cases," Jorg said.
The dogs are perhaps best known for hard releases. That's when they bark, chase and haze problem bears, teaching them to stay in the wild. Mishka isn't up for the rigorous run through the woods anymore.
It's Officer Richards the department's rank and file will miss most.
"If you're working and you needed someone to help you do something and you placed a call, Bruce is going to be there," said Wildlife Biologist Rich Beausoleil. "Thats what I love about him."
Beausoleil also credited Richards from uniting people who work in wildlife management with wildlife enforcement.
"We all wear the patch," he said, pointing to the Department of Fish and Wildlife crest.
After four decades of protecting people and wildlife, that teamwork is a proud legacy. Next month, the Wildlife Department will honor Mishka with a lifetime honorary commission. There will be honors for Officer Richards, too. Video.