Headwaters of the Missouri River, MontanaPepin is a Belgian Malinois, a sleek race-car version of the more common German shepherd. Strong, self-assured, and intensely focused (a littermate was part of Seal Team 6’s takedown of Osama bin Laden), Pepin has trotted across Zambian savannas to find evidence of lions, leopards, and cheetahs, and he’s pushed through lowland tropical rainforests in Myanmar searching out signs of wild elephants. His skill at sniffing out different animals’ dung has given conservationists a quick way to estimate those animals’ populations.
Now on the bank of a clear mountain stream near the Missouri River’s headwaters in Montana, Pepin suddenly dropped onto his haunches and fixed his gaze on ecologist Megan Parker.
This was his signal for having located a target. All morning, he’d been leading her to droppings left by wolves, cougars, bears, and other carnivores as she and two other trainers with dogs crisscrossed a large private property protected from development.
They were trying to gain a more detailed picture of how those wide-ranging animals were using this land, part of a key wildlife corridor in the 22-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
With both black and grizzly bears roaming here, Pepin finding yet another pile of bruin poop wasn’t unusual.
Except that this dung lay on the stream’s bottom under 10 inches of cold, fast-flowing water.
Parker and her colleagues with Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), a nonprofit she cofounded in the mid-1990s, had witnessed this type of super-sniffery before. “It started us wondering what else the dogs could tell us about things in the water,” she said.
For instance, could the dogs be trained to identify the presence of fish by taking whiffs of the air over the water’s surface? Testing yielded a yes.
Could they learn to tell different fish species apart by sniffing samples of slime wiped from their skins? They could.
OK, then could the dogs make the mental leap to distinguishing waters with only native trout species from waters that also had invasive eastern brook trout? Another yes.
And just like that, fisheries managers had a new instrument—one that could make surveying streams faster, cheaper, and safer than electro-shocking the water to see which species float stunned, or sometimes injured or dead, to the surface.
“These dogs have succeeded at virtually every task we’ve put before them,” said Pete Coppolillo, a conservation biologist who studied wildlife on several continents before becoming WD4C’s executive director. “We get some pretty crazy queries from wildlife researchers and managers wondering if dogs could possibly detect this or that. They’ve surprised us so often that these days we generally say, 'Why not give it a shot?’ And we rarely regret it.”
With a sense of smell thought to be a thousand to 10,000 times better than ours, dogs today are indispensable members of all kinds of professions. They assist search and rescue teams in the wake of natural disasters or reports of people lost in the outdoors. Dogs trained to warn of hidden explosives and enemies serve as allies in military operations. Other dogs assist police looking for jail escapees or the bodies of murder victims. Some partner instead with customs officials searching for contraband, from drugs to elephant ivory. Still others lead the way tracking down poachers, patrolling cargo ships for rats that might escape at distant harbors, or exposing forest insect pests in shipments of wood from abroad.
Dogs can sniff out early signs of Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, several types of cancer, oncoming epileptic seizures, and malaria, among other ailments. They’re even getting good at detecting infections of the coronavirus in people, an effort WD4C recently joined.
But as Pepin the Belgian Malinois demonstrated in Montana in 2009, some of the most hopeful—and least familiar—new roles for dogs have emerged in the sphere of nature conservation.
Just in time.
Under pressure from the activities of a human population nearing eight billion, wild places and their inhabitants face overwhelming disruption, and with some predicting that a third or more of Earth’s species could be lost before this century’s end, there’s little doubt that ecosystems we all depend upon are at risk of unraveling.
I set out to learn about conservation projects using trained detection dogs and discovered whole communities of wild plants and animals being helped by an incredibly powerful scientific tool—one that will lick your face if you let it.
To catch a stowaway mollusk
Escaping from Eurasia, probably in the bilge water of cargo ships, zebra mussels colonized North America’s Great Lakes region during the 1980s, taking over beaches and bottom habitats, fouling pipes, and clogging power plant cooling systems,
At the same time, these filter-feeders were also hogging an outsize share of the plankton that form the foundation of aquatic food chains. With a single female capable of producing a million young in a year, the invaders have been spreading fast across the continent ever since. They’ve already caused five billion dollars of damage in the Great Lakes region alone.
Cindy Sawchuk, the aquatic invasive species specialist for the Ministry of Environment and Parks in the Canadian province of Alberta, puts zebra mussels right at the top of her list of concerns. Alberta remains zebra mussel-free—so far. “If they get going here, the annual costs for maintaining the thousands of miles of irrigation channels and pipes that support our agriculture industry could jump by $75 million,” Sawchuk told me, “and that’s not counting the harm to native ecosystems.”
Vehicles hauling watercraft into Alberta are required to pull into one of the check stations along major highways. The waiting inspection team is now likely to include a sniffer dog from a program Sawchuk developed called Conservation K9.
While the average adult zebra mussel is fingernail-size, juveniles as small as a poppy seed can easily go unnoticed in a damp crevice or deep in a drain hole. But they can’t conceal their scent from a K9 on duty.
That still leaves the problem of stray puddles of water that might harbor the mussels’ larvae. Called veligers, they’re not only virtually transparent but also tinier than a single-celled amoeba—impossible to see without a microscope.
To detect these invisible infant forms, there’s no alternative to having highly specialized equipment packed with elaborate integrated circuitry—in other words, the nose of Canis familiaris.
In experiments, Sawchuk’s team found that their dogs could sniff out as few as two veligers in a 12-liter (2.6-gallon) bucket of water.
Training dogs for wildlife detection is not a tremendously complicated process. But it is a long and continuous one calling for levels of patience, intuition, and empathy that make training as much an art as an instruction routine.
Late winter snow was falling the morning I joined Sawchuk, two of her human colleagues; Hilo, a black Labrador; Seuss, a German shepherd; and Diesel, a chocolate Labrador mix at a warehouse in the city of Lethbridge. “It’s been months since these dogs last encountered mussels,” Sawchuk said. “Time for refresher training—a tune-up before the check stations reopen.”
The handlers laid out a row of boxes perforated on top. One contained dried mussels taken from storage. Although the cluster had little odor left, each dog soon stopped at the right box and did a quick-sit. Got it!
After more run-throughs, the dogs took a break outside while the handlers tucked mussels into cabinet drawers and among the stored equipment. One dog at a time was led in and encouraged to nose out the quarry. Gotcha again! Every success was met with such a round of cheers so lavish you’d think the dog had uncovered gold. Better than any glittering treasure, the praise was accompanied by tosses of a ball the dog could bring to its handler for…O JOY, a slobbery tug-of-war!
To recruit dogs for detection work, many trainers go to animal shelters and arrive with a ball or other chew toy in hand. They’re looking for high-energy individuals more than eager to do something—anything. These are the ones families often pick from a litter because they stand out as the brightest and friskiest. And once grown past the cuddly pup stage, they are ones likely to end up at a shelter because they’re too much for a family to handle.
To the trainer, however, a hyper-alert dog who obsesses over a chew toy has real prospects. Of all the dogs available, how many are not only selected but able to keep advancing through tests of stamina, confidence, compatibility, and other qualities to a career as a pro wildlife sniffer? Maybe one in 600 or more, I’m told.
Sawchuk’s star, Hilo, started his working career as a guide dog for the blind. He was plenty quick to learn but too curious and high-spirited to fit a strict training regimen, and he washed out of the program. Luckily, he got introduced to Sawchuk, who saw the potential in that irrepressible energy coupled with proven smarts.
Those traits make Hilo flexible enough to concentrate on mussels for a week, then switch to wading through marshes with Sawchuk to check out reports of an alien weed, and then—with the same enthusiasm—help a sister resource agency locate invasive wild hogs, which tear up natural habitats and croplands alike with their rooting.
From blossoms to butterflies
More than 99 percent of the native prairie in Oregon’s Willamette Valley has been converted to farmland or claimed by other development. Predictably, many once common plants and animals in the area now cling to existence in perilously low numbers.
Among the rarest is Kincaid’s lupine, an endangered wildflower. It happens to be the sole host for a creature even more scarce: Fender’s blue butterfly, which lays its eggs only on Kincaid’s leaves and feeds on the plant during the larval phase. Believed extinct earlier in the 20th century, the Fender’s blue was rediscovered in 1989 and declared endangered in 2000.
To protect both imperiled life forms, David Vesely, a wildlife consultant with the Oregon Wildlife Institute, based in the university town of Corvallis, knew the first step would be to identify areas with the most remaining Kincaid’s lupines. But he also knew how much time could be lost trying to distinguish them from several types of closely related lupines by going from plant to plant with a magnifying lens to scrutinize their anatomy.
Instead, Vesely called in two of the founding members of WD4C, Alice Whitelaw and Deborah Woollett. Once trained to the Kincaid’s lupine scent, their dogs—joined in the effort by Rogue, Veseley’s jet-black Belgian shepherd, an experienced tracker—proved able to pinpoint this subspecies in every stage of its lifecycle, from springtime sprouting to autumn decay. Over the course of a year, the team mapped out more than 30 sites with important Kincaid’s populations.
Now for step two: protection of the sites. Federal agencies upgraded conservation plans for the native prairie on public lands and began restoring some patches through selective use of wildfire. The locally based Greenbelt Land Trust did the same on private lands through agreements with the owners.
As Vesely and I looked over a 95-acre Greenbelt tract called Lupine Meadows, he said, “The long-term strategy is to link together the prairie remnants so they can function more like the original ecosystem.” Obscure species and subspecies like this didn’t get much attention until a local reporter wrote about the detection dogs, he said. “Suddenly, all kinds of people were interested. It turned into a great opportunity to talk to the public about the value of conserving biological diversity.”
Where solutions for wildlife and global warming meet
In 2009, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, a division of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, announced plans to build the Topaz Solar Farm in the Carrizo Plain drylands of west-central California.
With nine million panels spread across nine-and-a-half square miles, this would be the world’s largest solar power installation at the time. It would also be on land occupied by the San Joaquin kit fox.
Barely a foot high and weighing at most five pounds—less than the average house cat—this is the smallest of North America’s canines, which include other foxes, coyotes, wolves, and, of course, dogs.
San Joaquin kit foxes were widespread throughout the arid grasslands of Central California before their living space was largely replaced by agriculture, their food supply got beaten down by insecticides and rodent poisons, and those toxic chemicals began accumulating to destructive levels within the foxes’ own bodies.
In 1967, the San Joaquin kit fox, with a remnant population of about 7,000, was placed on the endangered species list.
Berkshire Hathaway Energy hired an ecological consulting firm for advice about ways to minimize the project’s impacts on the kit foxes and wildlife, from rodents to pronghorns, at the Topaz site.
“To track the foxes’ response, we needed really accurate censuses, but we had no methodology for doing that,” said Dan Meade, the firm’s principal scientist. Learning that Deborah Woollett had studied kit foxes for years, Meade got in touch with her.
Woollett designed a dense survey grid encompassing the solar farm and showed up with sniffer dogs. She patrolled its routes to collect fox droppings, trusting the dogs to tell them apart from the similar-looking scat of local coyotes and bobcats.
She then sent the dung for DNA analysis to find out how many different foxes the samples represented. Woollett continued doing this before, during, and after construction of the solar facility, a period spanning eight years. And contrary to almost all expectations, she found the fox numbers steadily increasing.
The Carrizo Plain is a semi-desert. Shade from the solar panels kept the soil underneath from drying out as quickly as in open areas. The extra moisture spurred the growth of grasses and other plants, which in turn attracted kit fox prey: insects, lizards, nesting birds, and the little canine’s staple here, ground squirrels.
Because the panels were high off the ground and arranged in well-spaced rows, the foxes found plenty of room for traveling, hunting, and excavating the den sites where they give birth and rear young.
To win permission for the Topaz project, the company had paid millions of dollars for 17,000 acres of land to be set aside for wildlife habitat elsewhere in the area.
Some of that acreage was plowed farmland near the project. After it was restored as grassland, foxes from the growing Topaz population began to move in, expanding their range—another positive outcome.
I caught up with Woollett 170 miles east of the Carrizo Plain in the Panoche Valley, where she and her dogs had also carried out kit fox surveys. At the moment, she was testing the dogs’ ability to detect the small droppings of blunt-nosed leopard lizards, which are, if anything, more endangered than the foxes. The reptiles tend to live in burrows of the giant kangaroo rat, highly endangered itself and the main food for the foxes here.
The massive replacement of California’s Central Valley grasslands by intensive agriculture left many wildlife communities isolated from one another and increasingly vulnerable. That said, we were standing on a newly created refuge, the 27,000-acre Panoche Valley Nature Preserve, with kit fox dens and kangaroo rat burrow complexes in sight on all sides.
Ben Teton, the preserve’s manager, was explaining how the refuge was formed from a recently purchased cattle ranch. The money came from a different energy company that also wanted to install a sprawling solar array, this one in the Panoche area. To win government approval, the company was required under the Endangered Species Act to find a way of compensating for potential impacts on imperiled wildlife present at the project site.
With young spring grasses and unfurling flower petals spread over the land like a great velveteen robe, optimism for a future in which wild plants and animals and alternative energy flourish together seemed in order.
Trusted friends in work and play, offering gateways to a deeper awareness of the mental abilities and emotional lives of non-humans, dogs are partners like no other. In the case of wildlife detection dogs, they can also become partners for kit foxes, blue butterflies, grizzly bears, and an array of other creatures, helping in the struggle to secure their future.
We don’t yet know how much more they can do to help conserve the natural world at this crucial stage in Earth’s history. The limits of their capacity to discriminate smells and communicate information haven’t been reached. Right now, there are only the limits of our imagination.