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Friday, August 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Scat-sniffing dogs unleashing wildlife science

Julianne Ubigau of Conservation Canines uses sticks to collect bobcat scat found by her dog, Ranger. The shelter dog has been trained to use his nose for science. (Rich Landers)
Julianne Ubigau of Conservation Canines uses sticks to collect bobcat scat found by her dog, Ranger. The shelter dog has been trained to use his nose for science. (Rich Landers)

Poop-sniffing dogs could help unlock many mysteries about wolves and their role in the ecosystem.

And the dogs could be key to getting the public to understand the science involved, experts say.

Since 1997, Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology has been proving that certain dogs can be easily trained to locate scat from specific species.

The use of dogs rescued from shelters for a wolf-related project underway in northeastern Washington was detailed in a Thursday Outdoors story.

As the samples are collected according to protocols, labs can analyze the scat for a wide range of data on the individual animal as well as the species population, including what the animals are eating.

The non-invasive Conservation Canines monitoring technique – the target animals don’t have to be captured – has been contracted for use around the world. Much of the work involves threatened and endangered species including tigers, orcas, fishers, spotted owls, bears, wolves, caribou, giant armadillos, giant anteaters, pumas, jaguars and Pacific pocket mice.

The dogs also are being tapped to find owl pellets and even the larvae of rare butterflies.

Wasser is recognized as a pioneer of non-invasive wildlife monitoring methods, including the genetic, endocrine and detection dog techniques used by the Conservation Canines.

He’s been in Washington, D.C., this week for meetings regarding Conservation Canines work in linking African elephant poachers with illegal ivory trade.

The northeastern Washington study seeks to measure the impact of wolf recovery in a landscape that’s been modified during the 70 or more years that wolves had been extirpated.

The work is privately funded as a pilot study in collaboration with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife researchers.

Conservation Canines already has contracted with the department on other projects primarily for carnivore population estimates. “They’re proposing some novel approaches that could be very useful,” said John Pierce, the agency’s chief wildlife scientist. “We’re definitely interested in seeing how the pilot work turns out and how it could be incorporated into understanding population dynamics.”

The work is being scrutinized to fine tune the information the poop-finding dogs can generate more efficiently that standard methods.

“Already we’ve found much faster methods of identifying species and individual animals,” Wasser said.

“Washington is very different than in Yellowstone, a national park where there weren’t a lot of changes to the landscape in the period that wolves were missing.”

The wolf’s return to Washington is much more complicated where there are more human-wildlife conflicts, and where the wildlife populations have changed. A larger population of coyotes may have evolved in northeastern Washington during the wolf’s absence. Whitetails have established and mule deer have declined. Moose have moved into the area and flourished.

“Wolf recovery presents a lot of challenges,” Wasser said. “They’re spreading fast, but it’s not clear how much movement is going on, whether it’s just individuals checking out new areas or packs moving, or new ones forming. It’s not clear how many are breeding.

“That’s the power of this tool. Using the dogs and collecting the scat, we can look not just at wildlife densities, but functional density. Hormone levels will tell how many female wolves are breeding; we can learn what’s coming and going; what they’re eating, how they’re affecting other wildlife.”

By collaborating with WDFW and satellite tracking data, Conservation Canines are setting up surveys where wolves are known to congregate as well as where they are rarely noted.

“This can help us learn how bobcat, lynx, cougar, coyote and bear distribute themselves over landscapes with high wolf densities compared with areas of low wolf densities,” Wasser said.

“We also can learn how their diet changes.”

Scientists keep an open mind, he said.

“We know that wolves kill coyotes,” he said. “But we don’t know whether there are fewer coyotes in northeastern Washington now that wolves are moving in. If coyotes learn to elude wolves, it’s conceivable that they might be benefiting by the carrion left by wolves, or maybe wolves are forcing them to change their diet while their distribution remains little changed.

“Are wolves stabilizing things or are they creating more havoc?” he asked rhetorically.

Poop-sniffing dogs enable researchers to get this sort of information.

“Landowners we’ve contacted have been an absolute pleasure,” Wasser said. “They want to have the knowledge. They want to know more about the wildlife.”

Down the road, Conservation Canines might reach out to schools and libraries to show kids what they’ve learned by following the nose of a dog through the woods.

There’s nothing like dogs and poop to capture a kid’s attention in school.

“People love these dogs,” he said. “They break down barriers to science and what we’re learning about wolf recovery. By doing that we start conversations that go home to family dinner tables. There’s a lot of potential.”

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