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Oregon

A Nose for Natives

"There’s nothing more fun than being out working with these dogs ... and know(ing) you’re doing good conservation work.,"

Dave Veseley
Oregon Wildlife Institute ecologist

by Jen Newlin

Rogue prefers his steak medium-well. But when it comes to sniffing out a rare plant, this dog performs work that’s very well done, indeed. The 4-year-old Belgian sheepdog is part of a Nature Conservancy collaborative project to test the efficacy of using dogs to sniff out the threatened Kincaid’s lupine. The plant is host to the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly, found only in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Using detector dogs for such inventory work is new territory: No one’s tried it before. But since dogs use their remarkable sense of smell to uncover illegal drugs or locate missing persons, why not use them to help find and protect endangered plants and animals?

Rogue’s reward for finding the correct plant? That steak. (Or sometimes mackerel.)

Can Dogs Do a Better Job?

The project was the idea of Greg Fitzpatrick, former steward for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon. The Conservancy has been working for more than a decade to improve habitat for the Fender’s blue in Willamette Valley, where less than 2% of historic upland prairie and oak habitat remain.

But Fitzpatrick found that surveying for Kincaid’s lupine was often arduous work over difficult terrain. And humans can only survey when the lupine is in bloom and easily identifiable; using dogs could potentially double the field season for locating lupine.

Fitzpatrick pitched his idea to ecologist Dave Vesely of the Oregon Wildlife Institute. (Vesely previously used Rogue for native turtle work.) He contacted Alice Whitelaw, co-founder of the Working Dogs for Conservation Foundation in Montana, and the team decided to give it a try:

  • In 2007, they worked to test and prove that dogs can distinguish plants from other species within a plant community (which is more technically difficult than, say, locating drugs in a suitcase or scat on a wooded trail).
  • Three dogs worked in eight locations skirting Corvallis — running over a mile of transects and putting their accuracy to the test. Of the 364 plots, the dogs made only six errors.
  • The dogs even surprised their handlers one day when they refused to alert on lupine at a new site. It turns out the lupine was a different species, and it was the handlers who had made a mistake.
Rogue Puts His Nose to the Ground

On a recent morning, Rogue, Vesely and Fitzpatrick waded through yellow, knee-high prairie. When ready, Vesely hollered: "Search!" And Rogue did. Nose to the ground, he purposefully wove through the grass, stopped, then sat. He anxiously waited beside a leafy plant that turned out to be lupine — his black ears visible through the tangle of grasses. "Good boy!" Vesely exclaimed, tossing a cube of steak.

"Dogs, in most cases, are more accurate and are quicker than people are," explains Whitelaw. Her detection dogs work around the globe to support projects on bears, wolves, cheetahs, snakes, invasive plants and more. "[The lupine work] is huge, in terms of the dog’s ability to discern species and how that can be used for conservation," she adds.

The team is still scrutinizing its research and producing a paper about their findings. But so far, they’re pretty excited about the possibilities. More refined regional mapping of Kincaid’s lupine could promote the butterfly’s recovery and delisting — and contribute to larger habitat goals and wildlife impacts. "We’re really, really pleased with our dogs," says Vesely.

Can Dogs Help Even More?

Although it’s not yet clear how long it will take a working dog to comb an area for lupine, this much is certain: they can do it. According to Whitelaw, they can also know up to a dozen targets at a time, which prompts questions like:

  • Can dogs be trained to identify lupine with Fender’s blue butterfly eggs on it and a Kincaid’s lupine without the eggs? (It's tedious for humans to find the tiny eggs on the underside of lupine leaves.)
  • And can dogs sniff out other native or invasive species?

Meanwhile, Whitelaw continues to lavish praise on project partners and working dogs, Fitzpatrick is stunned his idea has come full circle, and Vesely is intent on compiling the data and fishing for more funding to continue the project.

The research is currently funded by a grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund and is supported by the Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Greenbelt Land Trust and others.

"There’s nothing more fun than being out working with these dogs in the morning, when the birds are singing, and you know you’re doing good conservation work," says Vesely. "I just love it."

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