New Mexico

Shelter Dogs Come to the Rescue for Rare Salamanders

An unusual team of researchers in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains is helping protect a rare salamander found nowhere else in the world.


You can help! Your critical support is needed today to help fund the Conservation Canines research and improve how we manage New Mexico's vital forests.


An unusual team of researchers has been at work in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, helping protect a rare salamander found nowhere else in the world.

They are extremely energetic and focused. And they love to play chase with a ball.

These researchers are the four-legged variety—rescue dogs trained to sniff out wildlife and help conservation planners and land managers collect valuable data about wildlife populations.

The so-called Conservation Canines—all rescued shelter dogs—are working with the Conservancy, the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and the Valles Caldera National Preserve to map salamander distribution in the Jemez Mountains and improve our understanding of how to manage forests in the face of a changing climate.

Meet the Dogs

Frehley is a border collie whose previous owner kept him in a crate for the first year of his life. After being rescued, he had to be hand-fed but quickly learned and excelled at locating wildlife in the field. He has sniffed out wolf, wolverine and grizzly, among others.

Sampson is a labrador rescued from the Seattle Humane Society. His field work has included research projects on lynx, northern spotted owls and sea turtle nests.

In all, the Washington-based Conservation Canines team has 11 dogs in active duty.

These trained dogs work happily and eagerly 4-6 hours a day, motivated by the expectation of a ball reward given only when they find wildlife scat.

The obsessive, high-energy personalities of scat-detection dogs make them difficult to maintain as family pets. For these dogs, a home placement could mean returning to the shelter and possible euthanasia.

Conservation Canines provides a rewarding and satisfying alternative—a career in the field of conservation research.

Dogs from the program have worked on projects searching for spotted owls in the Pacific Northwest, jaguars and wolves in Brazil, and even orcas in the Pacific Ocean.

Compared to traditional wildlife detection methods (remote cameras, radio-collars, hair snags and trapping), no other method can acquire such a vast amount of reliable information in so short a time. It’s an approach conservation planners and land managers find incredibly valuable.

The Search for Salamanders

Jemez Mountains salamanders—a candidate for the Endangered Species List found nowhere else on Earth except north-central New Mexico—are in rapid decline. A warmer, drier climate in the state has impacted the salamanders’ habitat—threatening their long-term survival.

They are also very hard to find. And that’s where the dogs can help.

This study is part of the Conservancy’s Southwest Climate Change Initiative, an effort to develop adaptation strategies that make the Jemez Mountains healthier and more resilient for salamanders, other animals and plants, and humans, too.

In 2011, the Conservancy convened members of the Jemez Pueblo to collect salamander scent samples, which were then delivered to the Conservation Canines group for training.

Frehley and Sampson spent several weeks last September in the Jemez Mountains and have returned this fall to continue their highly specialized training to locate the reclusive amphibians.

The dogs’ findings are helping the Conservancy and partners better understand where salamanders live so we can move forward with our forest restoration program in the Jemez Mountains without impacting salamander habitat.

This forestry work will preserve wildlife habitat and improve forest health, reducing the risk of damaging wildfire.

Large and destructive crown fires—like last summer’s Las Conchas Fire—destroy the trees that the salamanders depend on for shelter, and are therefore the biggest threat to Jemez Mountain salamander populations.

Conservation Canines have a critical role to play in helping us develop strategies to keep New Mexico’s forests healthy for generations to come.

You can help! Your critical support is needed today to help fund the Conservation Canines research and improve how we manage New Mexico's vital forests.


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