Weed dogs

Orbee, a border collie from Montana, sniffs out dyer's woad at Edson Fichter Nature Area in Pocatello, accompanied by his trainer Ngaio Richards. Area weed superintendents attended a Thursday morning training session with the dogs, which they may use on a contract basis as a new weed control tool.

Orbee wasn’t cut out to be a ranch dog, but the energetic border collie may play a key role in preventing the regional spread of a pesky noxious weeds, called dyer’s woad.

After Orbee failed to live up to ranching expectations as a puppy, he was adopted by members of a Bozeman, Montana-based nonprofit, called Working Dogs for Conservation.

On Thursday morning, Orbee and another conservation dog, a shepherd mix named Zoey, were at Pocatello’s Edson Fichter Nature Area, training to detect dyer’s woad. Officials involved in regional weed control — including representatives from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the weed superintendents of Bannock, Bonneville, Franklin, Jefferson and Oneida counties — came to witness the demonstration.

The organization contracts with weed control officials, researchers, wildlife managers and others in need of putting their dogs’ keen noses to good use.

Jeffrey Pettingill, with Bonneville County, and Mitch Whitmill, with Jefferson County, said they’re considering using the dogs as a new tool for early detection of dyer’s woad in their coverage areas.

“We have very little (dyer’s woad) in our county, and we don’t want to wait until we have 100-acre patches,” Whitmill said.

Whitmill said he may use the dogs to sniff out dyer’s woad along railroad rights-of-way through his county, which are typically the first areas where new weeds surface.

Orbee’s handler, Ngaio Richards of Lolo, Montana, said her state has little dyer’s woad, and coming to Pocatello provided the opportunity for “refresher training” in an area with higher densities of the weed.

“We’re going to start on rush skeletonweed this summer and see if it’s a good use of the dogs,” Richards said.

The conservation dogs sit down to alert their handlers when they make a detection. Richards said Orbee is also trained to detect moose, otter, mink, wolverine, brown and black bear and gorilla scat. The dog has been used to monitor gorillas in Africa and has also worked extensively in Alaska.

“This is an international traveling dog,” Richards said. “There are all kinds of applications.”

The organization has about 10 conservation dogs throughout Montana and more than 30 worldwide. Richards said working breeds, such as border collies and German shepherds, tend to make good conservation dogs, but mixed breeds may also possess the right attributes. She estimates one in 3,000 dogs has what it takes to be a conservation dog.

One dog found on a Montana reservation has been used in anti-poaching work. Another top dog changed careers, having been used initially in narcotics control.

Melissa Steen, handler of Zoey, said her 3-year-old dog came from a Texas animal shelter. Zoey has been assisting an undergraduate student in finding bear scat for research about stress levels in bears, as determined by cortisol levels in their feces. The student is investigating whether a bear’s proximity to roadways elevates stress. Zoey has also been used to track bobcat, kit fox and bat scat.

“You can find the diet, you can pull DNA and you can get all sorts of info about movement and habits from scat,” Steen said.

Pettingill said Bonneville County spent 15 years pulling and spraying its small populations of dyer’s woad, and the weed hasn’t been detected in the county in two years. He likes the idea of using the dogs to catch the plant early, before its seeds have the chance to spread.

“The weed world is a visual world. By the time a (weed) is flowering and gets noticed, it’s almost an epidemic,” Pettingill said. “If we catch it before flowering, we can get ahead.”