December 19, 2011
Nose on the Range, Part 2: On the Scent of Carnivores
Dog detective helps conservationists keep tabs on animals on Wildlife Land Trust property
Parker earned her master’s degree in ecology studying birds of prey and her Ph.D. researching African wild dogs in Botswana. Working with the Wildlife Conservation Society, she used detection dogs to define movement corridors for the expanding grizzly bear population of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. She and her working dogs are now slated to carry out detection surveys for lions, cheetahs, African wild dogs, and hyenas in Zambia. Yet as she reaches into her belt pack to draw out a sausage-shaped strap designed to be chewed on, Parker quips, “I’m really just a toy delivery system.” Engaging Pepin in a brief, playful tug-of-war over the thing while giving off whoops of encouragement, she pauses long enough to explain, “This is his paycheck. He gets a few moments to play with his toy, gets a drink”—from a water dispenser in Parker’s backpack—“and on we go.”
Yes we do, straight up until we’re beyond the ranch and starting to encounter boulderfields and avalanche chutes on the Centennials’ face. We move across an open slope, then start another transect, going downhill. Pepin leads the way to more scats, as biologists refer to carnivore dung. Like the claw marks on nearby logs ripped open in search of insects, most of the droppings appear to be from black bears. But we can’t rule out a small grizzly. I followed fresh grizzly tracks on the ranch during a previous visit, and people have reported several of the silvertipped bears around the valley this summer. To be absolutely certain which species left which scat, a sample from each one we find today will be sent to a laboratory for DNA analysis.
"I'm really just a toy delivery system."
I catch up with Pepin under the branches of a big Douglas fir, where he’s investigating a comfy-looking spot that served as a bear bed—maybe for a family, since there are cub-size scats around. A different scat next to the tree trunk tells me that some other carnivore liked this nook as well. Pepin’s lack of interest means that it wasn’t a fisher or wolverine. Coyote? Bobcat? Marten? These smaller predators are common enough in the region that he isn’t targeting them during our survey. It’s a good thing vegetarian poo isn’t on his agenda, either. There are so many mule deer, elk, and moose pellets underfoot that we’d never get anywhere.
At the end of the day, Parker takes Pepin to a brook for a long drink. There, he finds one more bear scat—on the bottom of the stream, beneath a foot of chilly water. How he was able to detect that is a mystery to us humans with our third-rate sense of smell. His feat only emphasizes the value of trained dogs in wildlife surveys. Parker and her staff currently have nine under their care. While Pepin is busy here, some of his nosy colleagues are headed to Alaska to assist bear studies. Before that, they helped census animals from moose to endangered black-footed ferrets.
“The dogs can be specifically trained for almost any project: elk, marten, sage grouse—whatever,” Parker says. Since virtually every organism has a signature odor, “whatever” includes plants, too. Lately, her canine crew has been homing in on invasive weeds such as yellow star thistle. “If you don’t stop it, the stuff just takes over,” Parker continues. “Horses eating star thistle get what’s called ‘chewing disease,’ which can be fatal. In Iowa, we were locating Chinese bush clover to prevent its spread on a wildlife refuge.” Her dogs’ success at picking out Kincaid’s lupine from more common lupines in Oregon proved invaluable to a program aimed at preserving this native plant. “Otherwise,” she notes, “you’d need an expert botanist along scrutinizing every lupine with a magnifying glass to tell which kind it is.” Displaced by agriculture and exotic weeds, Kincaid’s lupine is on the threatened species list, and it happens to be the main food source for the larvae of the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly.