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December 19, 2011

Nose on the Range: Dog Detective Helps Protect a Wildlife Land Trust Property

Canine helps conservationists keep tabs on refuge animals

All Animals magazine

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by Douglas H. Chadwick

The door to the cabin swings open, and a voice shouts: “Grab anything that can be knocked over!” Suddenly, everybody is scrambling to reach open water bottles, leftover juice, binoculars, cameras—Pepin is here, and we’ve all learned that this lanky, 80-pound dog with the probing nose and lashing tail has a way of being not just in a room but everywhere in it at once.

Fortunately, we’re not indoors much. We awake before dawn each morning and head straight out into southwestern Montana’s Centennial Valley and the Centennial Mountains on the valley’s southern side. Dominated by 10,203-foot Mount Jefferson, this range of peaks forms the Continental Divide, looping away from its usual north-south course to run east and west here at the juncture of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The summits still glitter with snowfields at the end of July. Everything below is lit by wildflowers exploding into bloom after an exceptionally wet June.

With the rugged Madison, Gravelly, Snowcrest, Greenhorn, and Tendoy ranges converging from the north, the Centennial area is a nexus for wildlife roaming this section of the Rockies. That’s why we’re here. Pepin, a breed of shepherd known as a Belgian Malinois, is a detection dog. His handler and favorite human, Megan Parker, is putting his skills to work searching for droppings and other signs of the region’s largest, toothiest creatures: namely grizzlies, black bears, cougars, wolves, wolverines, and fishers.

Our focus is Roaring Creek Ranch at the very upper end of the 385,000-acre Centennial Valley, owned by Tony and Donna Demetriades and protected through conservation easements administered by the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust. Executive director Bob Koons wanted to learn more about the role the preserve plays in the daily lives of large carnivores and in their prospects for long-term survival. As a first step, he hired Parker’s nonprofit organization,Working Dogs for Conservation, to come have a look—make that a sniff—to see who’s been padding by.

This morning, Pepin sets off zigzagging at Malinois speed, guided by simple voice commands and hand signals from Parker while she follows a course from the ranch’s antelope-tracked lower slopes of sagebrush and grass toward the upper elevations, cloaked in pine and fir. The rapport between the woman and the dog is so pronounced, you feel you could practically reach out and pluck it like a finely tuned musical string. We’ve barely left the Demetriades’ cabin near the bottom of the property before the hazel-furred dog drops onto his belly and fixes Parker with a stare, his signal for a discovery. His outstretched paws even frame the prize. It’s a heap of bear poop. For carnivore fans, this counts as a fine way to start the day.

Many of the dogs the foundation puts into service come from shelters or rescue groups. Parker inspects a thousand or more dogs for each one she finally selects. “We look for really high-energy animals from working breeds like shepherds and Labs,” she says. “Families expect them to act like other pets, but when they aren’t given a job, some become totally obsessed with a toy or develop other kinds of neurotic behavior. The owners think they’re crazy. They’re the dogs most likely to get sent to a shelter and the ones most likely to be put down because nobody will take them. It’s so rewarding to use a dog that was being thrown away. I think of what we do as double conservation. We help save dogs, and they help save wildlife.”

Nose on the Range, Part 2: On the Scent of Carnivores »

Read more from this issue of All Animals »

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