POWELL — Tobias and Lily, two of man’s best friends, have traveled the world helping scientists in conservation efforts.
From finding endangered gorillas in Africa and black-footed ferrets in Meeteetse, to searching for a tiny invasive species plaguing waterways across America, these dogs use their cute but highly developed noses to do what humans can’t.
Aimee Hurt, biologist and director of special projects for the non-profit organization Working Dogs for Conservation, brought her pups to the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area to help look for zebra mussels and educate staff and visitors about working dogs. The invasive mollusks were first discovered in the U.S., finding their way in via cargo ships in the Great Lakes in the 1980s.
The tiny mussels have spread rapidly throughout the country, beginning with the large rivers of the eastern Mississippi drainage. They’ve since been found in Montana, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California in the west.
The species have yet to be found in Wyoming, thanks in part to aquatic invasive species (AIS) check points and a ton of education effort. But the problems they cause mean the search will remain intense for the foreseeable future.
Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C) was started 20 years ago.
Hurt said it was one of the first organizations to use canines to help scientists in efforts to save endangered species, control invasive plants and to help stop the spread of invasive species, like the zebra mussel.
“In the 90s it became possible to get DNA out of animal droppings. It allowed us to non-invasively monitor wildlife populations if only we could find scat more reliably,” Hurt said.
The group started by working with agencies that were using dogs to find narcotics. It has since evolved into a broad range of conservation efforts. Dogs amazingly can smell the difference between types of ants, Hurt said.
And with zebra mussels, the dogs are even able to find the microscopic fledglings of zebra mussels, called veligers. Without the dogs, the veligers could go undetected in minute amounts of water.
Canines have 44 times the number of olfactory cells of humans and 60 percent of their brain is dedicated to processing odors. Only 12 percent of human brains are related to scent, Hurt said.
“They are machines built for this type of work. Combining their noses with our ability to search more than doubles our ability to detect invasive or endangered species that need to be found for conservation purposes,” she said.
The yellow Labs she brought to Lovell have been uniquely trained to detect the presence of not only animal life, but also invasive plant species. Where humans fail, Hurt’s Labs are flawless in finding even the smallest plant or animal.
And they do it all to have a ball. Literally. The only reward needed to motivate the working dogs is a little play time with their toys and praise.
Lily and Tobias are among 30 dogs employed by the organization, a dozen of which travel extensively to help find as many as six different targets a year. Lily has already worked to locate bats, a noxious weed and now zebra mussels this year. Later this fall, she’ll once again work to help locate black-footed ferrets, North America’s most endangered species.
Many of the pups owned by the organization live permanently in Africa and are used to help control and solve wildlife crimes, such as finding rhinoceros horns being illegally smuggled.
“The need is 24/7 there and they work year-round,” Hurt said.
The organization has employed dogs in 19 states and 16 countries to help find more than 40 species. The dogs bring canine talent and charisma to otherwise tedious and mundane efforts.
While the working dogs go through thousands of hours of training, the pups themselves are free to WD4C; the organization finds their dogs at animal shelters.
Lily and Tobias have come a long way from when they were abandoned and, due to high energy and issues with manners, held in shelters with slim chances of adoption.
“Most of our dogs come from shelters and are hard to place as pets,” Hurt said. “Lily came to us as a 3-year-old and had already had five homes. She was just too much dog for a regular household.”
Other dogs have flunked out of training efforts as search and rescue or bomb and narcotics detection dogs. One of WD4C’s best working dogs was a drop-out for a program training service dogs for the blind; he couldn’t resist chasing tennis balls, even if attached to the bottom of a walker.
Unlike dogs that work in public, the conservation organization needs pups that are slightly manic, Hurt said.
“What’s too much energy for [other organizations] is still mellow for us,” she said.
One of the most important characteristics is a high play drive. Getting a ball to play with is better for the dogs than a food reward because they often make dozens of discoveries a day. “We don’t want to fill them up and give them a belly ache.”
Other mannerisms, like social grace and being careful around children, are less of a concern. Labs make great search dogs, but all breeds are considered when looking for candidates. Only about one in 1,000 dogs found at shelters have the qualities to be on the WD4C team.
It takes about three months for Hurt to train a dog on their first scent. After that, it can take as little as a few days to train for new scents. But while the WD4C pups are capable of finding multiple plants and animals, the organization employs signs to alert those undergoing searches that the dogs aren’t looking for illicit party supplies like marijuana.
The need to keep zebra mussels out of Wyoming is extremely important — especially where water comes from a single source, like in Park and Big Horn counties, said Christy Fleming, chief of interpretation for the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
“All of the systems that we use every day could be ruined if zebra mussels get into our water systems,” Fleming said.
Not only will the invasive species harm the environment, but they could cost us more for electricity, water use, irrigation. “These guys can totally wreck the whole system,” Fleming said.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department warns that invasive species like zebra mussels are very prolific and can rapidly and completely infiltrate waters. By removing nutrients from water, they result in lower gamefish numbers, damage boats and out-compete native mussels. Private industries and federal and state agencies spend millions of dollars each year removing zebra mussels from the environment, the U.S. Geological Survey says.