Scientists at the University of Washington are using rambunctious rescue dogs to track down endangered species in their natural habitat. The Conservation Canines work all over the world — tracking elephants in Africa and Orcas in the Pacific. Professor Samuel Wasser teells host Steve Curwood about their work chasing salamanders and in the controversial tar-sands area of Alberta.
CURWOOD: From hunting to pulling sleds to leading the blind, throughout history dogs have performed a variety of jobs for their human companions. Now the Conservation Canines program at the University of Washington is putting man’s best friend to work for science.
Joining us from the University of Washington is the founder of Conservation Canines program and director of the University’s Center for Conservation Biology, Professor Samuel Wasser. Professor, welcome to Living on Earth.
WASSER: Thank you, glad to be here!
CURWOOD: So, tell us a bit about these canine conservationists. What role do these dogs play in scientific research?
WASSER: Well, essentially they are an extremely efficient way of acquiring samples. Most of the samples we use come from an animals feces or scat, and that’s because it’s loaded with a variety of physiologic and genetic measures. So, the dogs allow us to sample large bits of wilderness and also to sample multiple species often at the same time.
CURWOOD: What gave you the idea to use dogs in this way in the first place?
WASSER: Well, we wanted a method to sample animals according to their distribution in the wilderness. And one of the problems with feces is that some animals may use scat to mark their territory, which makes their scat more conspicuous and easier to find.
After looking at a number of different kinds of detection dogs: dogs that detect bad guys, dogs that are hunting narcotics, bomb dogs… it became pretty clear that the narcotics dogs are kind of the perfect models for this system, because what these are, are very high reward-driven dogs, once you train the dog that it gets its reward from detecting the sample, it really will do anything it can to get its reward.
So, in our case, our dogs have an incredible play drive for a ball. They are so focused, that, if they know you’ve got the ball, and you throw the ball, nothing in its way will stop it. What’s really nice about this is that you can transfer this incredible drive into finding samples because the dog is so obsessed. Once it smells a sample and knows its going to get the reward from it, it will work tirelessly to find it.
CURWOOD: And once it finds the sample, you can then subject it to all this DNA testing and such to determine exactly what the animal is and what its other habits are?
WASSER: We can use the DNA in the samples to actually figure out how many animals of each species there are in the wilderness. We know the location of those samples, so we not only know how many individuals there are, but where they are located, what areas they are avoiding. And then we can get the physiological measures from those same samples again and see if they are in areas that they really prefer, are they in better physiological health than when they’re in areas that they’re avoiding.
And in doing so it allows us to see what are the pressures facing these animals, and as those pressure change, how does it affect their physiological health and well being.
CURWOOD: Wow, that’s a lot to learn from a bit of poop!
WASSER: It’s fantastic, actually.
CURWOOD: Where do your dogs come from?
WASSER: I mentioned that the dogs have an extremely high ball drive. One of the things that happens to these kinds of dogs is that when people get them as pets, they find out after the animal gets to be a year and a half, two years old, that they simply can’t keep it because it will just do anything for its ball and it’s just relentless - it just won’t stop.
So people end up giving those dogs to the pound or shelters hoping that someone else will adopt them. But the problem is that those dogs are so wild that nobody wants to adopt them. We go through the pounds and we look for the dog that has this completely obsessive drive for the ball – that nothing else matters when it sees the ball – and that’s the animal that we choose for our work.
CURWOOD: I understand that your conservation canines are working with the Jimez mountain salamander. How are they helping to save this salamander?
WASSER: Well, the Jimez mountain salamander is endangered. We have been working with the Nature Conservancy and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to find these salamanders in their remote wilderness habitat. They’re very small, they’re just a few inches long, and they’re no thicker than a pencil and very cryptically colored. So they’re very difficult to find, and when they’re above ground, it’s only for this short period of time in the monsoon when there’s good rain then you need to be able to locate them quickly. So, our dogs have been trying to help the Nature Conservancy and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to locate these lizards [ED - THEY ARE CORRECTLY AMPHIBIANS, NOT LIZARDS] in their remote habitat.
CURWOOD: Now, I understand that your canine conservation program is working in the Alberta tar sands, it’s a very controversial area - this business of extracting oil from tar sands. What do these dogs do up there?
WASSER: For four years, we brought dog teams into the tar sands. Now, we went through and we monitored the impacts of the oil development on the caribou, the moose, its competitor, deer, and their predator, the wolf, over the period when the oil companies were there, which is in the winter when the ground is deeply frozen, it’s about minus 10 Celsius and the snow is two feet deep.
And the reason it was important to know their impacts on the caribou was because the caribou were believed to be going extinct in Alberta within the next two decades. We collected samples over the landscapes and the four dogs in the ten weeks we were there got about 1500 samples, which allowed us to get accurate population estimates of the caribou, moose and wolf, and allowed us to see their distribution across the landscape, and allowed us to see their physiological health and how this was changing with the number of oil workers on the landscape.
CURWOOD: And the mission was to find out whether or not the caribou were endangered and you found…?
WASSER: The first thing we found was that the caribou were not declining anywhere near as quickly as government projections had implied. There were well over twice as many caribou in the area as the government projected.
CURWOOD: How then did this affect government policy?
WASSER: The government was arguing that the best way to deal with the situation is to remove 60 to 80 percent of the wolves on the landscape. Well, what we showed was that the wolf was actually taking very, very few caribou. They were really heavily focused on deer. If they took 60 to 80 percent of the wolves out of the population, the deer would undergo a population explosion in the area. And deer eat everything. They also bring with them a number of diseases like chronic wasting diseases, a variety of parasites that can jump to caribou and potentially really cause great harm to the ecosystem.
CURWOOD: So, if wolves aren’t the problem, then what is?
WASSER: The real problem appears to be food. In the winter time, the vast majority of caribou are pregnant, and these pregnant females are eating almost entirely lichen. The lichen is very, very rich in glucose, and that is the primary food that a fetus consumes when it is developing. So that told us that lichen was the key nutrient that we needed to protect and that variation in the amount of lichen transfers to variation in pregnancy health. One of the things that we also found was that the soil conditions that lichens grow in are the same kinds of soil conditions that are good for building roads.
CURWOOD: Sandy, and smooth, and even?
WASSER: Yes. And what that implied was that the number of people on the landscape, and therefore the number of people using those roads could be preventing the caribou from accessing those lichen, even though the lichen was there. They were afraid to go there because there were so many people on the landscape, and people to them are also viewed as a predator.
CURWOOD: So, the answer there was to ask people to stop spooking the caribou.
WASSER: Right. And, of course, we’re talking about an area where there’s billions of dollars at stake here, so you can’t just say ‘just stop’ because that’s not going to happen. But we were able to make recommendations about how they could work on the landscapes that would minimize the impact on the caribou, and there are two really important aspects that we are trying to get them to implement.
One is that instead of extracting oil very diffusely over the entire landscape, that if they were able to concentrate their activity at any point in time in a certain area, work that area and then move to a new area, the caribou would be much better able to move around in areas that they could still access lichen.
And the second recommendation is to be more thoughtful about where they put these high-use roads. Now, giving them recommendations is one thing. The nice thing that’s happening is that the oil companies are coming to us and saying: OK, let’s get together and think about what is practical, what is not, and how can we best move forward in a manner that is going to put the animals at less risk. We’ll see what happens.
CURWOOD: So, how much do your dogs enjoy this work?
WASSER: Huh. They love what they do! I mean, think about it, you’re dealing with a dog that is just a maniac for its ball and all day long it’s running through the woods, smelling poop and getting a ball reward. I mean, what could be better if you are a dog?
CURWOOD: Samuel Wasser is professor of conservation biology and founder of the Canine Conservation Program at the University of Washington. Thank you so much, sir.
WASSER: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.
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