Doggy detectives are sniffing out invasive species

The canines are much better at finding the unwanted flora and fauna than humans are, and at an earlier stage of life.

Dogs are used to sniff for drugs and bombs, to find missing people, smuggled contraband, hunter’s prey and fugitives, and it’s said their amazing noses can even detect cancerous tumors inside people’s bodies. So, why not use them to sniff out invasive plants and insects? An Associated Press story reports that one pooch, a yellow Labrador retriever named Dia, has been taught to do just that.

Dia assists conservationists in tracking down a flowering yellow shrub that’s taking root in New York recreational areas. She and her handler Joshua Beese, of the nonprofit New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, began last fall hunting for Scotch broom in Bear Mountain and Harriman state parks about 50 miles north of New York City.

The shrub, through pretty, displaces native plants by growing thickets that wildlife have a tough time getting through. It’s become widespread in the Pacific Northwest but is new to the Empire State. Land managers there are hoping to nip it in its yellow buds before it gets a much bigger foothold.

Without Dia’s help, the job would be overwhelming, Beese told the AP. “If we had to find all these plants ourselves, combing the grass for every tiny plant, it would take so much longer — and we’d still miss a lot,” The previous morning, Dia showed him hundreds of Scotch broom shoots hidden in a field of tall grass and sweet fern that he probably would have missed, as did other volunteers with the conference’s Invasives Strike Force.

Beese later uprooted the shoots, and they joined 2,500 other nascent Scotch broom plants that the Strike Force had uprooted from the search area.

In the mid ’90s, handlers started training dogs for conservation-oriented tasks such as sniffing out endangered species scat and detecting illegally trafficked banned ivory. Man’s best friends and their super sniffers are fast becoming important tools in the fight against invasive plants and insects.

“Our field in the last 15 years has just exploded,” says Pete Coppolillo, executive director of the nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation in Bozeman, Montana, in the story. The organization partners with government agencies, researchers and nonprofits on five continents to provide trained dogs and handlers for conservation projects. One of WDC’s handlers mentored Beese in training Dia.

The nonprofit has trained dogs to find spotted knapweed in Montana, Chinese bush clover in Iowa, yellow star thistle in Colorado, rosy wolf snails in Hawaii and brown tree snakes in Guam.

Currently, it’s doing a feasibility study in Minnesota on using detection dogs to identify trees that have been invaded by emerald ash borers. Dogs have also been employed in five Western states to detect invasive zebra and quagga mussels on boats.

“We’ve trained over 200 dog and handler teams to help in global wildlife trafficking, and now we’re doing a lot of invasive species work,” Coppolillo told the AP. “It’s really exciting. As ecologists we’ve always talked of invasives as something we manage, but now we may actually be able to eradicate them in some places.”

Another example of a successful canine conservation effort is the near-eradication of Dyer’s woad, a knee-high weed from Russia that’s traveled far from home, festooning western-state roadsides with its unwanted golden blossoms.

Weed-pulling teams tried for years to get rid of it at Mount Sentinel in Missoula, Montana, without making much headway. Enter a border collie and a golden retriever trained by WDC, and within a few years the plants were almost completely gone.

The secret to their success is that they can smell the target plants hidden among other species. Unlike humans, they don’t need to see the flowers to I.D. them.

“That’s a game-changer,” Coppolillo says in the story. “Each plant can set up to 15,000 seeds a year, and those seeds can live seven years in the soil. Dogs can find the plants before they flower and reproduce.”

WDC finds its recruits at animal shelters, but only one dog out of 1,000 passes the screening tests, making it the dog-world equivalent of getting into Harvard. To make the cut, dogs have to be not only high-energy and good sniffers but also seriously obsessed with toys so they’ll stay motivated to work for a chance to chomp on a ball.

Beese got Dia from a Wisconsin breeder who specializes in field competition dogs. Last fall, he trained her to hunt Scotch broom. Earlier this summer, he taught her how to seek out an invasive nonnative grass called slender false broom.

Beese isn’t stopping with Dia. He plans to train his Belgian malinois, a certified search-and-rescue dog, to sniff out spotted lanternfly, a destructive forest and agricultural pest discovered in Pennsylvania in 2014.

In the story, Beese yells, “Go find!” and off Dia goes, sniffing the air for the invaders. She follows the scent to its source and shows him each plant by touching it with her nose before sitting for her reward — a game of tug-and-fetch with a ball on a rope.

Dia has another job, too; bringing public awareness to the trail conference’s 8-year-old Invasives Strike Force program.

“The great thing about dogs is that they’re charismatic and people love them,” said Arden Blumenthal, a conservation intern working with Beese, to the AP reporter. “It’s a great way to draw attention to the invasives issue.”