Wyoming Wildlife - January 2018

Nose for ferrets

With more than 220 million olfactory receptors at the ready, trained dogs are testing to sniff out ferrets in Wyoming. If it works, it could save the state work hours and turn black-footed ferret monitoring into a more effective, less expensive science.

12/20/2017 3:04:01 PM

The yellow Labrador retriever whined as she circled the prairie dog hole, her long tail wagging with a mixture of excitement and uncertainty. She thrust her head back into the hole, took another whiff, whined again and then sat down on the dirt mound next to the hole.

“Good Lily, good girl,” said Aimee Hurt, Lily’s handler. Hurt pulled a rubber ball out of her pocket and began throwing it. It seemed like an ordinary play session between a person and their beloved dog, but it was much more than that.

Lily is a working dog and her job today is to locate black-footed ferrets. Professionally trained dogs have been used effectively for decades for wildliferelated research, including in work with bears, foxes, desert tortoises, fish, endangered whales and invasive snakes, plants and even ants. As part of a pilot project, Lily is searching for ferrets on the Pitchfork Ranch near Meeteetse. Wildlife managers want to determine if dogs can relieve some of the human workload of monitoring ferret populations, potentially making the process more effective and lowering the cost compared to current survey methods.

Lily is one of several dogs belonging to Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), a nonprofit organization based in Bozeman, Montana, that trains dogs to detect plants, animals and scat. Hurt is one of the organization’s founders.

Wyoming Game and Fish biologists typically survey 10,000-15,000 acres per year within the Shirley Basin reintroduction area for ferret population numbers.

In mid-September I spent a morning with Lily and Hurt as they worked. Lily is a professional, and I was instructed to ignore her while she worked to avoid distracting her. This wasn’t easy because Lily is adorable as she wanders from one prairie dog hole to the next, poking her head down each one. Hurt is equally charming as she talks soothingly to the dog and calls her by a variety of pet names throughout the day: Sweet Pea, Peanut, Lily Lou and Little Lil.

Being adorable isn’t a requirement to become a wildlife detection dog, and breed doesn’t matter either. But one thing conservation working dogs have in common is love of a ball. Lily is extremely driven.

“Her eyes dilate at the sight of a ball,” Lily’s bio on the organization’s website states. “And if you are foolish enough to throw it once, well, there goes your afternoon.”

By the time Lily was 3 years old she had already lived in five different homes. A dog rescue organization in Georgia recognized Lily’s potential as a working dog and started training her for narcotics detection. Budget cuts sent Lily to WD4C, where her quirky nature and boundless energy serve her well as she tirelessly searches for endangered wildlife and invasive pests. And she does it all for the love of a ball.

“It’s like a paycheck for the rest of their lives,” said WD4C dog handler Melissa Steen. “The ball drive must override the dog’s excitement at finding a live animal.”

And the reward? Lily gets to retrieve and retrieve again after identifying the training target. Game and Fish reps were impressed with the dogs’ focused, business-like desire to check each and every prairie dog burrow for possible ferret scent.

Dogs and black-footed ferrets have a long history in Wyoming. In 1981, a ranch dog named Shep brought a dead ferret to the doorstep of his owner near Meeteetse. Wildlife officials were notified and a colony of ferrets was discovered on the ranch and neighboring land. Until Shep’s discovery, black-footed ferrets were feared to be extinct.

Ferrets from that population were bred in captivity and reintroduced in the Shirley Basin north of Medicine Bow in 1991. Regular monitoring has confirmed that the species has persisted there for 25 years. In 2016, a second reintroduction site was established on the Pitchfork Ranch near Meeteetse, at the site of rediscovery.

Game and Fish works to monitor large-scale trends in the ferret population each year.

“Such monitoring efforts are important for the department to achieve recovery and delisting goals for black-footed ferrets,” said Jesse Boulerice, Game and Fish nongame biologist. It is important to critically evaluate the usefulness of current monitoring efforts compared to other potential detection methods, especially as the department continues to pursue additional reintroduction sites.

Monitoring ferret populations currently consists of annual nighttime spotlighting surveys combined with mark-recapture efforts that adorn captured ferrets a small dye tattoo so they can be tracked later. Biologists typically survey 10,000-15,000 acres per year within the Shirley Basin. These surveys are labor intensive and require the work of about a dozen people for three consecutive nights for several weeks each fall.

Spotlight surveys are difficult, expensive and limited in the amount of area that can be covered on an annual basis. They can look at only a small portion of the approximately 150,000 acres of potential habitat in the Shirley Basin reintroduction area. With the addition of a second reintroduction site at Meeteetse, these challenges of spotlight surveys increase and require Game and Fish to divide already limited resources to meet monitoring needs at both sites. So Boulerice began looking into alternative monitoring methods. He said the use of scent detection dogs has received only brief attention but holds promise.

“The traditional methods we have to sample ferrets are challenging and not particularly effective if determining if a ferret is present on the landscape,” he said. “Other techniques such as scent stations and infrared flights require ferrets to be above ground. The dogs are a technique that has been tried and does not require the ferret to be above ground. This is pretty important.”

In 2003, a project was conducted to specifically test the effectiveness of dogs at detecting black-footed ferrets at the Conata Basin reintroduction site in South Dakota. During this project, dogs were able to correctly detect a black-footed ferret in an occupied area 84 percent of the time. Those numbers looked promising to Game and Fish, so Boulerice signed up to give the dogs a try.

The potential of working conservation dogs is amazing, like the yellow Lab Aimee Hurt prepares for ferret training. Dogs have been used successfully to detect a myriad of fauna for decades and have also recently auditioned for detecting brucellosis infected elk near Pinedale. Photo by Mark Gocke/WGFD

Though they seem good at their jobs, these dogs don’t automatically know how to find black-footed ferrets, so training is necessary. The dogs are first introduced to ferrets at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in northern Colorado, just a short drive from Cheyenne.

In the field today, Lily is joined by three other dogs. Tule, a 2-year-old female Belgian Malinois, was in training for scent work for U.S. Customs and Border Protection before making the career change to work with WD4C. Keesha, a 7-year-old female Labrador retriever, is trained to locate invasive ants. Bodie, a male Belgian Malinois mix, is one-and-a-half years old and brand new to detection work. Each dog is unique and learns at its own pace.

“We try to get all the dogs to the same point and adjust training as we go,” Steen said.

Training starts with placing ferret scat in a prairie dog hole and rewarding a dog for finding it. Then they move on to working with live animals. The handlers bring out four corrugated plastic tubes that are closed at the ends with caps. One of the tubes contains a live ferret, two of them contain a live prairie dog and the last tube is empty. Each dog walks by the tubes and has to find and alert on the tube holding the ferret. The dogs are trained to give passive alerts, in which they sit or lie down to announce they’ve found what they’re looking for. When a dog locates a target species it must remain professional. Barking, digging or other misbehaviors are not tolerated. Still, the dog must communicate that they’ve found something important, and Lily has her own special style.

“We look for behavior changes,” Hurt said. “Extra tail wagging and whining, deeply sniffing, double checking or intensely checking all the holes in the area — it lets me know she’s found the target species.”

Handlers use data sheets to keep track of each dog’s progress, the number of encounters it has and how it reacted to each. The data help the handler see where they need to intervene with additional training.

Their instruction continues in the field in active prairie dog towns where there are no ferrets, to ensure the dogs are not alerting to false targets.

“It’s sort of a soft landing from training mode to field mode,” Hurt said.

When is a dog ready to actively look for ferrets?

“When they are consistently telling us there is a ferret and not hitting on nontargets,” Hurt said.

The dogs must learn to ignore the prairie dog scent and calls. Despite their training, wildlife detection dogs do sometimes get distracted by prairie dogs. After all, they are still dogs. Boulerice calls it “background noise.”

There was plenty of background noise when the three dogs graduated to areas of the ranch thought to contain ferrets, but Lily wasn’t overly distracted. For the most part, she ignored the prairie dogs. Even a dead coyote received only a quick sniff before she went right back to work. A pronghorn proved a bit more exciting as it loped by, but a firm “leave it” from Hurt quickly got Lily back on task.

To try to confirm the presence of ferrets, biologists survey an area the night before and indicate where they spotted ferrets. Then they send the dogs out to the same area the next morning to see if they detect ferrets at the same spot.
Custom seasoning for researchers’ and dog handlers’ lunches? Not quite. The holes in the plastic caps let the scent of the ferret scat, or droppings, escape for dogs to detect from burrows. The containers are retrieved and used again.

Three dog-and-handler teams had 200 acres to cover at the ranch, and Hurt kept track of their progress using a GPS unit that records a digital track of the area she and Lily covered. Lily wore her own GPS unit and it recorded every move she made. Hurt uses the data from both GPS units to compare their tracks to ensure they properly covered an area.

Lily smelled another prairie dog hole then looked at her handler.

“She obviously smelled something,” Hurt said, “But she knew it wasn’t the target species. She probably smelled a prairie dog. No alert means no reward.” Lily is, after all, a professional.

Due to their nocturnal nature, black-footed ferrets are rarely above ground during daylight, and this presents a challenge for the dog handlers. Hurt said searching for ferrets is more difficult than most species because the handler cannot confirm if a ferret is actually present when a dog alerts at a prairie dog hole.

To try to confirm the presence of ferrets, biologists survey an area the night before and indicate where they spotted ferrets. Then they send the dogs out to the same area the next morning to see if they detect ferrets at the same spot. Other times the dogs went first and biologists tried to confirm their findings.

“When the dogs point us to a hole, we tried to confirm there was a ferret in that hole by attempting to locate it with spotlights,” Boulerice said. “At most, we only had one night to do this and the next night we had to be someplace else with more recent alerts of ferrets. Our techniques of being able to validate need some improvement.”

Still, he sees promise in using canine assistants. In one instance, the biologists surveyed an area for three nights and did not find any ferrets. When the dogs alerted at a hole in the same area, biologists put a trail camera on the spot and the next night a female ferret and her two kits came out of the hole.

“Our spotlighters missed these ferrets, but the dogs were able to pick them up,” Boulerice said. “But there were also a mix of cases where dogs indicated that they found ferrets but we were not able to prove it one way or another.”

The dogs may get another opportunity to prove themselves.

“The project showed a lot of promise and has a lot of potential for an effective survey technique,” he said. “We are considering seeking funding to do another year of surveys with the dogs. We would like to have more cameras on hand to try to validate how effective the dogs are.”

After four hours of searching, Lily was getting tired so Hurt started back toward the vehicles. Despite her slower pace and lolling tongue, Lily still stopped to check every prairie dog hole that we passed. “She’s tired but she’s still checking, and that’s exactly what we want,” Hurt said. “It’s important to quit while she is still interested.”

I was certainly tired after walking across the prairie all morning. Hurt checked the GPS units — she and I had walked a bit over 6 miles and Lily had walked more than 12.

We have a dog to thank for the rediscovery of black-footed ferrets in Wyoming, and now our beloved canines can take some credit for helping keep Wyoming’s black-footed ferret populations alive and healthy into the future.

Back at the truck, Lily had another long drink of water and, after sniffing around for a bit, settled down on the ground for a well-deserved rest. The next morning she would have all four paws, and more importantly her nose, on the ground again. — Robin Kepple is the Game and Fish information and education specialist for southeast Wyoming, and a lifelong dog lover.

After training with PVC pipe, quarry in tubes and scat in jars, here’s the dogs ultimate future target: a free-ranging black-footed ferret. It could possibly even specifically be this one, released on the Pitchfork Ranch near Meeteetse in July 2016. Photo by Jessica U. Grant/Wyoming Wildlife


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