Conservation's Best Friend 

A crew of Missoula canines sniffs out a new kind of wildlife research

Wicket, a Labrador retriever mix, steals through clumps of dried knapweed along the banks of Greenough Park. It’s a gray April day, and alternating rain and light snow have made the dead leaves soggy. The dog’s quarry, a light brown snail the size of a thumb, is well camouflaged. 

The search goes hot, then cold, then hot again. Aimee Hurt, Wicket’s handler and associate director of the Working Dogs for Conservation Foundation (WDCF), coaches the dog with an outstretched finger and a few encouraging words. Wicket, nose to ground, hardly pays attention. She’s focused, intent, energized, a veteran. When she finally catches the faintest scent trail and pinpoints her target, she sits and locks eyes with Hurt. Towering over the snail in her flashy orange vest, Wicket looks imposing.

That’s Hurt’s cue. She tosses a pink and blue ball from her belt pack and Wicket goes nuts. The dog darts around the brush until she finds a good spot to sit and gnaw. Wicket’s rookie coworker, Orbee, barks and whines from the back of Hurt’s pickup, antsy for his turn.

At first blush, nothing about the snail appears imposing. There’s nothing to suggest the decades of devastation its kind has caused to the fragile ecosystem of the Hawaiian Islands, no hint of the fact that this slow and timid snail ranks among the world’s worst invasive species. Looking at it, you’d never know that snails like these help contribute to deadly bioinvasion, considered to be a leading cause of species extinction and endangerment worldwide along with habitat destruction and global warming.

Wicket has her work cut out for her. It’ll take somewhere between 500 and 600 of these practice sessions, Hurt ventures, before Wicket becomes Hawaii’s cutting-edge line of defense against the six-tentacled Rosy Wolf snail (Euglandina rosea).

Pressure is nothing new for this particular Lab. She and her coworkers have saved Rocky Mountain carnivores from urban encroachment. They’ve charted the return of moose to the Adirondacks. They’re the rising stars in a fledgling branch of wildlife conservation, and one of mounting environmental importance.

“It adds another tool to the wildlife biologist’s toolbox to study various species across the globe,” says Jon Beckmann, a WDCF client and ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bozeman. “I think they have tremendous potential. If anything, the use of search dogs will probably just be limited by the imagination of research biologists out there. If you can think of novel research questions, I think this is a potential tool that can be used.”

Working Dogs for Conservation followed on the heels of a series of experimental conservation initiatives started in the mid-’90s. Co-founder Alice Whitelaw had worked in wildlife biology and veterinary care for years, but recognized an increasingly pressing need for less intrusive methods of collecting data on native species.

“My whole career had been involved in capturing and handling of various wildlife species, so very intrusive, invasive … traditional methods of monitoring,” Whitelaw says. “About that time, not only had genetics come a long way in terms of extracting DNA from fecal samples, but also non-invasive techniques had really moved to the forefront of most researchers’ minds. We needed to come up with other techniques in order to try and gain some of the same information without having to collar and dart and trap animals. I think that was sort of the push at the time. The climate was right for it.”

That’s when Megan Parker, WDCF’s executive director and Whitelaw’s friend of 17 years, mentioned her latest endeavor.

Parker started obedience training with dogs at age 10 and always had a fondness for biology. She developed an interest in the wider potential for dogs in non-invasive wildlife research around 1995 and, like others with WDCF, looked for a way to combine her longstanding love for dogs and her passion for conservation. The only question was how.

Throughout the mid-’90s, lab biologists honed the ability to extract viable DNA samples from tissue particles contained in animal scat. Parker’s thought, building on such breakthroughs, was to train dogs to sniff out the scat of specific species in the wild. The practice would reduce the physical impact of field research on threatened and endangered animals. The only problem? No one had pioneered it yet.

With the help of a law enforcement friend in New York, Parker and Whitelaw found a narcotics dog trainer in Washington state willing to help them modify existing detection techniques. Initial field tests led them from work with wolves in Idaho to work with bears in Washington. By that time the group drew the interest and participation of Hurt and Deborah Smith. The four consider the Washington bear scat project the first definite step toward founding WDCF in 2000.

“Looking back, the questions now seem really simple,” Parker says. “But at the time, as with everything, they seemed insurmountable. ‘How are we going to get dogs to sample across all these landscapes, all these different kinds of terrain?’—all these things that, as a scientist, you worry about making even. But we’re still trying to figure those things out. We know we can do it, we’re just trying to refine the way that the dogs work and the way that data are collected.

“We’re pushing the questions, too,” she adds. “Every time we do one thing, we come up with other questions.”

The subsequent years saw WDCF grow in both efficiency and popularity. Nonprofits, universities and state and federal agencies hired the group for a wide range of projects, all of which tested the limits of both the handlers and their dogs. They’ve been asked to hunt down a single crop of the dreaded spotted knapweed, sniff out live desert tortoises in Nevada and find wolf carcasses illegally shot by hunters in Montana.

Work grew so demanding that in 2002, Hurt and Whitelaw dedicated themselves to WDCF full time. The group, scattered between Missoula and Bozeman, gained nonprofit status that year and took their efforts international. They’ve traveled to Guam, where Wicket tracked invasive brown tree snakes. They’ve traveled to Kenya, where Hurt and Parker trained shelter dogs from Nairobi to scent for cheetah and African wild dog scat. Much of Whitelaw’s work abroad has centered on endangered snow leopards in eastern Russia.

And the various projects WDCF undertakes often blend with their continuing education. Smith’s doctorate research at the University of Washington focused on the use of conservation dog detection in monitoring kit fox populations in California’s San Joaquin Valley. When she isn’t tending WDCF’s Pepin, Parker is busy wrapping up her own doctorate degree at the University of Montana, studying scent marking behavior in African wild dogs in Botswana.

“We constantly are impressed by how well the dogs work and by how much more they can do while still refining our first questions,” Parker says. “It gets broader because we keep coming up with more things the dogs can probably do well.”

To call Hurt and her compatriots “dog people” is an understatement. Hurt cares for five dogs at home, including Wicket and Orbee. Coworker Kathryn Socie owns two, though both are unemployed (“They’re kibble-burners,” she jokes). WDCF employs eight dogs total, mostly Labs, shepherds and border collies. All live with their respective handlers.

Since the first projects that culminated in the founding of WDCF, the group has looked to a particular type of dog: High energy, hyper-focused, frantic and rugged. They’re the kind of dogs that, if kept around the house, might turn those habits to destructive or aggressive tendencies. But in the conservation world, their owners provide them purpose and drive. In a sense, they’re Type A personalities desperate for careers, what Hurt calls “the right kind of crazy.” And that makes them perfect WDCF material.

Wicket used to live at the Pintler Pets animal shelter in Anaconda, under the name Cooper. Employees loved her, says owner Pat Phillip, but as the months dragged on her overly energetic personality kept her from adoption. The shelter doesn’t euthanize animals, so her future hung on a question mark. Four years ago, Hurt contacted the shelter and explained the behavioral traits she was looking for in a new dog. One interview in Anaconda was all it took. Wicket was hired.

“It is a big relief that they take them because those types of dogs are really hard,” Phillip says. “They just create havoc in the facility because they’re so high-strung and then they get the other dogs going. They’re hard to handle.”

Montana shelters like Pintler Pets have built strong relationships with WDCF over the years, and WDCF is quick to show its gratitude. Phillip says the organization sent her a photo of Wicket on assignment in Guam. It’s now hanging in the shelter lobby.

“The dogs that they’ve taken, I mean, they’re more or less strays,” Phillip says. “And then to think here they have a job and they’re really doing something for mankind, it’s awesome.”

WDCF continues to look for more workers. As the existing squad grows older, and projects more numerous, Hurt and her colleagues screen candidates. That’s how Orbee, a former resident of the Beaverhead County Humane Society, wound up in Greenough Park on a chill spring day, pacing frenetically in his small kennel. He’s a replacement of sorts for Finny, the first WDCF dog to reach retirement and the first to pass away. Hurt’s now training Orbee the same as she trained Wicket and Finny before. He’ll gain the experience and know-how over time to become as efficient and methodical as his coworkers, carrying the conservation initiative a generation further.

Not all of the employees at WDCF come from such uncertain beginnings. Whitelaw handles three of the organization’s German shepherds, Tsavo, Camas and Tia. The last two came from breeders who specialize in work-force dogs, and Camas holds the record for scent recognition at WDCF—13 total. But Tsavo transferred to conservation from a failed career in schutzhund, a competitive international sport involving police-type dog work.

“You have to be a little bit crazy,” Whitelaw says. “They’re really hard to live with. That said, we all sort of change our idea of what hard is and I think the dogs mold that a bit. You get used to what’s normal. They’re obnoxious. They can be really destructive. The reason we get a lot of calls from rescue groups or from shelters is ’cause those dogs have been too much for the average pet owner to handle. They don’t understand where the dog’s brain is going.”

So WDCF channels a dog’s energy into a specific task using a tool familiar to any dog owner: a chew toy.

Take Wicket’s Rattlesnake Creek outing. She jumps from the back of Hurt’s covered pickup knowing that her Orbee ball, a super-durable product from WDCF sponsor Planet Dog Foundation, is nestled in Hurt’s belt pack. Wicket lives for a few moments with that ball. So when she sets to work scenting for a wolf snail, she turns her full attention to the task. As soon as she finds the target, she sits down to alert Hurt. She’s not allowed to interfere with the target in any way, living or otherwise. If all goes well, as it usually does, the toy comes out and Wicket gets a moment of playtime.

There’s a little more to it than reward. The dogs aren’t put to work if they aren’t willing. They don’t just enjoy the payoff; they enjoy the practice, as well. It’s what they’re bred to do.

“It’s a 24-7 endeavor,” Hurt says. “Lifelong, from training to retirement.”

And those lives constitute an entire arena of WDCF funding on their own. Keeping the dogs comfortable—both on and off the job—is costly. Fortunately for WDCF, others recognize the value of their work.

“We’re really interested in all the different ways dogs are able to help people in need and help improve people’s lives,” says Kirsten Smith, executive director of the Planet Dog Foundation in Portland, Maine. “To see that they were also able to help preserve habitat for different kinds of wildlife was just a fascinating application of all the skills dogs have. We were drawn to the program immediately.”

The Planet Dog Foundation entered the picture in spring 2008, when they awarded WDCF a grant for $10,000. That money supported the dogs in their off hours, and was backed up by another $3,000 grant this year. Smith says the company supports WDCF through product donations as well, namely the Orbee ball.

“I think that’s the right way to treat a dog when the dog’s worked for you for a while,” Smith says. “It’s nice to keep it in a familiar surrounding and let it kick back and live like a pet.”

Though the dogs don’t have free reign after they punch the clock—for training reasons—they do go home to all the creature comforts: plush beds, plentiful toys, top-shelf food and the best vet care money can buy. Everything short of gilded water bowls.

“They’re sort of like employees with all the benefits,” Hurt says. “Health insurance, paid vacation, all that kind of stuff.”

Working Dogs for Conservation points to its own backyard for examples of its most successful work. In 2004, the Wildlife Conservation Society office in Bozeman contacted WDCF for an extremely challenging project: scenting for four Rocky Mountain carnivore scat samples simultaneously.

“We knew that in this case we weren’t going to handle animals nor did we want to,” says Beckmann of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We didn’t want to have an invasive capture-and-collar project, which most of my other projects as a biologist and conservationist have generally done.”

Beckmann headed the WDCF project, conducted in the Centennial Mountains along the Montana-Idaho border. His goal was to gather scat samples from black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions and wolves to gauge the region’s importance as a wildlife corridor into and out of Yellowstone National Park.

That project quickly became a favorite for the members of WDCF, an example of their ability to further the conservation effort through non-traditional means. The 2004 pilot project fed directly into a five-year commitment that wrapped up last summer. And results turned around fast. With DNA culled from scat samples, Beckmann and other scientists were able to identify individuals within each species and establish a rough census map of areas with increasing carnivore activity.

“What we’re trying to do is be able to predict those areas that are going to be important for species like grizzly bears before they even get there,” Beckmann says. The Snowcrest range, for example, hasn’t seen grizzly bear activity in more than 70 years. Until now.

Hurt says data collect by WDCF in the Centennials has already influenced local decisions on land use, including the halting of a 1,200-home Idaho subdivision set for development in a carnivore travel corridor.

Not every project, however, goes smoothly. Whitelaw remembers a nasty six-mile outing from a few years back, when a Wall Street Journal reporter tagged along with her and Jon Beckmann. The trip took them down a narrow canyon, and they wound up skirting a cliff near a waterfall.

“At one point Jon was about four feet away from me,” Whitelaw says. “We had a leash on Camas just to have a good hold on her. I would hand him the leash, she would walk that three feet, I would scoot over right behind her, he would scoot over three feet, and we had to do that for about an hour to get out of there.”

By the time they slid down a slope and reached safe ground, Whitelaw had torn out the back of her pants. She had to ask the reporter to tape them closed.

“Every time I get the dogs out of the truck I learn something,” Whitelaw says. “And because we work on such a variety of projects, it’s never boring. It’s always challenging. You’re working and communicating with another species—the dogs—and the fact that it works blows me away.”

This spring, WDCF faced perhaps its greatest challenge to date when the Oahu Army Natural Resource Program in Hawaii invited Hurt and Whitelaw to participate in a pilot conservation program. Kapua Kawelo, a biologist with the program, hoped WDCF’s detection dogs might prove to be a new and valuable weapon in the fight against the two-inch wolf snail.

The government imported wolf snails from Florida starting in the late 1930s to balance Hawaii’s infestation of another invasive species, the giant African snail. The idea was one large predatory snail species would kill off another. The plan worked on Oahu, but by the 1950s wolf snails became a bigger problem than the giant African snail had ever been. Kawelo says in subsequent decades, wolf snails have driven three-quarters of the 40-some indigenous snail species to extinction. A handful of those left are known only to exist in minute and extremely isolated populations. The destruction earned the wolf snail designation as one of the world’s 100 worst invaders.

“The cannibal snail here, we’ve struggled for many years with what to do about it,” Kawelo says. “Without any control techniques, if it hits our native snail population it can decimate them pretty rapidly.”

Existing control techniques include poison, snap traps and large, partially buried plywood fences that double as rat control devices. These fences include shock wires and salt troughs, but prove a double-edged sword as they limit the mobility of native snails, wreaking potential genetic havoc on pocketed populations. Kawelo says they’ve even resorted to human detection, a labor-intensive last ditch effort that requires biologists to sift through forest refuse by hand. When a coworker of hers visiting New Zealand got wind of WDCF, Kawelo jumped at the opportunity.

“We had never heard of them,” she says. “Needless to say we were very excited when we found there were people that do this type of dog detection work specific for conservation.”

Hurt and Whitelaw received a shipment of wolf snails from Oahu by mail last winter and trained their dogs indoors. But fieldwork in Hawaii this spring was much more complex than they’d anticipated. The rich olfactory salad of exotic foliage and rotting leaves masked the faint scent trail left by the wolf snails. Wicket and 3-year-old Tia had to be nearly on top of the snails to find them. Hurt likens it to sniffing out a single drop of blood in a busy crime scene rather than a pungent pile of poop in a forest.

The duo spent three weeks on Oahu working with Kawelo. Hurt says the project will stretch into the foreseeable future, with plans for WDCF to return this July. Kawelo’s ultimate goal is to train a resident dog-and-handler team for ongoing work in conservation areas in Hawaii. That or convince Hurt and Whitelaw—and their dogs—to move to the islands.

Orbee darts out of the back of Hurt’s truck looking like a border collie blur of black and white. He found his way to WDCF in January, and Hurt named him in honor of the Planet Dog Foundation’s continued support. Wicket whimpers from the front seat, her practice done for the day. The rookie has bugs of his own to work out.

Hurt set up Orbee’s training course minutes before, squirting globs of hair gel in different patches of brush about 10 yards apart. Hair gel is the starter scent, she explains. It’s pungent enough for a dog to detect from a distance without being readily visible.

Orbee leaps at Hurt’s belt pack, mindful of the reward inside. But he’s off at her command, zig-zagging slowly across the open field. It takes a few minutes of this seemingly aimless wandering, but he eventually catches a scent and zeroes in on the first target.

This first attempt is sketchy. Orbee’s so keyed up he forgets to sit. He stares at Hurt, then the target, then Hurt. His mouth hangs open and his ears perk. She reminds him to sit, and he remembers the next time. Each scent exercise goes more smoothly than the last.

Socie, an old friend of Hurt’s, hangs back by the creek. She says she jumped onboard with WDCF last October as the organization’s first official employee who isn’t a dog or a handler, working as their development and communications director. With a background at nonprofits—she’s worked for the Humane Society and for a string of shelters and veterinary clinics—she’s taken charge of writing WDCF’s grant proposals. Her hire reflects the foundation’s continued growth.

How large WDCF grows is largely up to the creativity and confidence of its clients. Kawelo, for instance, sees great potential in the dogs’ work and their ability to reach out into new areas of conservation.

“It remains to be seen how vital they can be,” Kawelo says, “because their work hasn’t been applied in all the areas it can be. The more publicity they get, the more creative projects they’ll be able to try and apply dogs to.”

Orbee, for one, appears ready for more work. When his training in Greenough Park ends, he moves from person to person begging for his toy. Hurt whispers attaboys into the dog’s ear and offers the ball. Orbee has a long way to go from sniffing out hair-gel to hunting down invasive species, but there’s no telling how important his next scent will be.
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