Sniffin’ out scat for conservation
by Kathryn Socie
OCCUPATION Scat detection dog
HOBBIES Playing with balls, chasing the stream from a hose
Go to work," Aimee Hurt calls. It's a cool August afternoon in Montana's Blackfoot Valley. Dressed in an orange vest and bear bells, Wicket begins sweeping across the trail, running in wide arcs, jumping downed trees, traveling with her nose high, mouth wide open. We follow the 3-year-old Lab cross through a recently logged patch of woods at the base of the Scapegoat Wilderness.
Wicket narrows in on an area, becomes more focused, tail wagging furiously. Suddenly, she stops, sits down and stares at her handler. Hurt walks over to investigate her find. "Good girl!" she yells, and tosses Wicket her favorite toy. "It could be grizzly," Hurt says, pulling out a bag to collect the sample for analysis. Some dogs lead the blind, others sniff out drugs or explosives. Wicket's specialty is poop: grizzly, black bear, cougar and wolf. A specially trained scat-detection dog, Wicket is conducting science in a whole new way. She and a growing team of dogs like her are making significant contributions to conservation efforts in the West and around the globe.
With the DNA extracted from the scat Wicket finds, scientists can identify species and sex, and potentially determine population size, home range, paternity and kinship. The analysis of endocrine extracted from scat can even determine the reproductive status of the animals.
Armed with hundreds of millions of scent-sensitive cells, compared to the dismal few hundred possessed by humans, dogs are ideal for scat-detection work. But not all dogs are employable. As Megan Parker, co-founder of Working Dogs for Conservation Foundation (WDCF), points out, "Most people would describe these dogs as psycho."
Hurt, also a co-founder of WDCF, came across Wicket at Pintler Pets, a shelter in Anaconda, Mont., when the pup was just 12 months old. An employee contacted her about a different dog, but that mildly playful mutt lacked the off-the-charts energy and drive necessary for a scat-dog's line of work. A stroll through the kennel led Hurt to Wicket, who was bouncing off the walls, completely ball-obsessed. "When I described to the shelter worker which dog I wanted to take for a try-out, she said, 'That one's crazy,' " says Hurt. "Turned out to be the right kind of crazy." Wicket had been passed over for the last six months, but her day had finally come.
After just nine weeks of intensive training, Wicket went to work. Now, she is in her third season on the Wildlife Conservation Society's Centennial Carnivore Connectivity Project, an attempt to determine the habitat selection and movement patterns of the four critical carnivore species whose scat are Wicket's specialty. The Centennials serve as a migratory corridor between the Yellowstone area and central Idaho's Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Connecting these two areas is essential for preventing genetic isolation of these species.
This fall, Wicket will begin work for the Missoula, Mont.-based Rocky Mountain Research Station. She'll be part of an ongoing study of the elusive fisher. Fishers - a relative of the weasel - are rare in the Rocky Mountains; they have been found only in north-central Idaho and west-central Montana. Researchers plan to employ a variety of survey methods - including Wicket's skills - to learn more about how and why this carnivore is so rare in this area.
Wicket's work is deeply important to her human handlers and to all the scientists who use the data she uncovers. But for Wicket herself, it's all about a romp through the woods for a few minutes of ball time, her coveted reward for a successful find.
When not on the job, Wicket spends her downtime obsessing over the hose. She sits by the spigot in her yard, eagerly waiting for some sucker to turn it on so she can chase the stream. According to Hurt, "She'll wait quietly, but shiver with anticipation while we water the garden before her turn."
In the end, she is still that crazy dog from the shelter.
The author writes from Missoula, Montana.© High Country News