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A Nose for Conservation

Published on 22nd May 2018

It’s the moment Orbee has been waiting for. He sits quietly, if impatiently, waiting for his handler to catch up and recognize that he has, once again, done his job and done it well. At that point, Orbee receives the ultimate reward: a few minutes of playtime with his favorite ball.

Orbee is on a mission to sniff out and identify black bear and grizzly bear scat in Western Alaska. For most dogs, catching a whiff of grizzly would signal alarm, and send them running in the other direction. Orbee is an exception. The slightest scent of bear scat, and he’s following his nose through the borealforests of the Kobuk Valley National Park, until it leads him straight to his target: a pile of solid evidence left behind by the bears who travel through this territory.

Orbee is a highly trained detective with a unique job in conservation biology. This black and white Border Collie cross is helping the National Park Service scientists learn more about the diet, population, and density of both black bears and grizzly bears. He’s a scent specialist, trained to run directly to the scat left behind by these roaming animals; often finding it in spots the human eye and nose would miss. The scat is mapped, collected, and sent to a lab for analysis of the bear’s sex, age, diet, and health.

The Kobuk Valley project is just one of dozens of conservation studies that benefit from the olfactory talents of dogs like Orbee. The canine division of the non-profit, Montana organization Working Dogs for Conservation (WDC), which includes eight other trained canines, provides non-invasive, highly reliable real-time data for scientists who are studying wild flora and fauna around the world.

Conservation work is data-intensive by nature, requiring hours of fieldwork to identify and locate species — a job that is tricky enough when it involves plants that stay put, even more challenging when following wildlife on the move. Most wildlife tracking fieldwork involves radio collars, tranquilizer darts, hair snagging traps, or motion-activated cameras. It’s slow, laborious work, unless you’ve got a dog.

With an incredible ability to track and identify smells, dogs have become familiar partners in drug detection, search and rescue operations, and customs enforcement. The scientists and dog trainers at WDC have created a new application for an age-old skill, and their highly specialized techniques allow these dogs to produce essential data while simultaneously enjoying the very activities they thrive on: chasing smells and playing with balls.

The average dog’s nose is hundreds of times more sensitive than the average person’s; it’s longer, better innervated, and connected to a more sophisticated smell-interpretation center in the dog’s brain. Megan Parker, executive director and co-founder of WDC, compares the relative size of a human’s sense of smell to a postage stamp, while a dog’s olfactory powers would take up an entire football field. The WDC dogs’ refined noses achieve in the field what human technology cannot: detect, track, and distinguish plant and wildlife species by the chemical signatures they send into the air. And because the dogs track scat, rather than the actual animal, the target species remains undisturbed and follows its normal path and habits.

Parker possesses unique insights into the natural talents of dogs, and how they can fill an essential niche in scientific research. As a conservation biologist who has spent time studying raptors in Central America, wild dogs in Africa, and wolves in Montana, she is intimately aware of the flaws innate to traditional data collection techniques: They disturb animals’ natural patterns, and they don’t work consistently for all species, or for varying sizes and ages within a single species.

Since founding the organization fifteen years ago, Parker and her colleagues have worked on projects ranging from the mundane to the exotic: they’ve tracked Ash Borer insects in Iowa, counted Kit foxes in the San Joaquin Mountains, and run down invasive snakes in Guam. Government agencies, non-profits, and individual donors fund individual projects. WDC has nine dogs on staff, split up to live among the five human conservation scientists who train and handle the dogs. All of the dogs have structured daily training and exercise regimens to keep their skills sharp and their reactions focused. The WDC scientists also work on researching projects, planning training strategies for specific scents, and expanding their cadre of canines.

More than just a nose

The WDC dogs contribute to saving endangered species, and in exchange they themselves have been saved. Orbee and most of the others are rescues, brought to WDC from animal shelters around Montana and beyond. Those qualities that make them perfect for conservation detective work — high energy levels, great stamina, and an unrelenting focus on one activity — make them very difficult to keep as family pets. Without a job to channel their drive, these dogs become obsessive and destructive beyond a level that most families can tolerate.

Parker and her colleagues at WDC have earned a reputation as the folks to contact when shelters receive such animals. The group’s handlers often get called in to local rescue shelters, where they test the candidates’ work ethic, focus, instinct to chase, and adaptability. The standards are extremely high — only about one in two thousand pups screened has all the qualities needed to become a WDC member. “The dogs need to be one hundred percent reliable,” explains Parker. “They can never run after another distraction. They need to focus totally on getting that reward.”

Invasive plants in their own backyard

WDC pups have sniffed out plants and wildlife all over the globe, but they make sure to work in their own backyard as well. Mt. Sentinel, in Missoula, has been inundated with Dyer’s Woad, an invasive weed that prevents native plants from taking hold. The best way to eradicate the plant is by pulling it before the seeds mature, but too often the seedpods have formed by the time people identify the pest. Fortunately, Seamus, a WDC border collie, can find Dyer’s Woad at any point in its growth cycle.

Seamus’ first family brought him to the shelter because of his excessive energy and low tolerance for small children. He’s found his niche at WDC, however, and puts his need for repetitive ball chasing to good use. His handlers trained him by hiding samples of Dyer’s Woad around fields and rewarding him with ball time when he found the hidden leaves. “The dogs don’t really track plants,” explains Parker. “They isolate the smell in the air and follow it.” Seamus’ trainers gradually moved the samples farther afield, until he could follow the scent of the leaves over 65 feet or more. The scent from plants can be subtler than from animal scat, which dogs can detect from a distance of several hundred feet. On the mountain, Seamus and his handler systematically transect the land until Seamus sits to indicate he’s found a plant—often it’s barely recognizable to the human eye. The plant is mapped and tagged, and later pulled by volunteers.

Killer snails in Hawaii

“Attack of the carnivorous snails” may sound like a B-rate horror flick, but these slimy critters are causing real problems for the Hawaiian snail population. The Euglandina rosea, an invasive snail species that thrives by preying on the native snails, has helped push nine Hawaiian tree snails onto the endangered species list. Luckily , despite the fact that the invasive snails are under an inch in length and hide effectively in leaf litter, they still emit an odor detectable to a canine nose.

The WDC expert on finding carnivorous snails is Tia, a black German Shepard. Tia is one of the few WDC dogs not rescued from a shelter — she was chosen as a puppy to be trained for conservation detection work. The dogs are assigned to projects based on their innate talents and personalities, and Tia demonstrated a strong propensity for the thoroughness and attention to detail needed to sort tiny snails out from leaf litter. Using snail samples shipped to Montana, Tia was trained in the same manner as Seamus was for plants. Once in Hawaii, she was ready to work.

Like many WDC undertakings, the Hawaiian snail project required collaboration among several entities to arrange both funding and logistics. In this case, the University of Hawaii Manoa worked with the Oahu Army Natural Resources Program to bring the WDC dogs and scientists on board, as part of their shared goal to eradicate the invasive snails.

Moon bears in China

While mostly the dogs work to reduce invasive species, some of their projects help to increase the numbers of rare native animals, such as the elusive Asian Moon Bear. The cool, forested mountains of northeast China have long been home to the animal, but as their habitat is developed, their population has dwindled. Scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park called on WDC to assist in a census to determine which areas make up the most critical habitat for the Moon Bear population.

WDC sent three dogs and their handlers to track and identify bear scat. Among the dogs was Wicket, a one-year-old Black Lab mix who’d spent six months in a shelter before she impressed the staff with her quick take on scent detection skills and was adopted into the WDC family. Those skills were put to the test in China, where she spent several weeks exploring the wild, remote forests of the Sichuan Province. Despite leeches, stinging plants, and treacherous conditions, Wicket found scat samples in nearly every area they searched.

What’s next for WDC?

Parker may be the only person in Montana expecting shipments of gorilla scat —specifically, dung from the Cross River Gorilla, an extremely endangered primate that inhabits small territories in Cameroon. She’ll be training two dogs to detect the scat and differentiate it from that of other gorilla species. DNA analysis of the scat they find should confirm whether the gorilla groups are intermingling. For this project, Parker must choose dogs that can handle the extended confinement during the flight, the country’s heat and humidity, and still have the stamina to cover long distances over rough terrain.

Parker and her colleagues see growing awareness of the benefits dogs offer for field studies — in fact, they’ve begun teaching their strategies and techniques to other groups, which can then train their own dogs and incorporate them effectively into their research. Parker is preparing for a trip to South Africa to lead a workshop on using canine sniffers to monitor wild dog and cheetah populations across Namibia and Botswana. For the scientists and trainers at WCD, the opportunities keep growing — and for the dogs, that means lots and lots of ball time.

[RESOURCES: Working Dogs for Conservation: www.WorkingDogsForConservation.org]