Working dogs learn new tick-hunting tricks

A PhD in ecology student is at Jackson Hole this fall to study winter ticks and their effects on the local moose population. To help with the data collection, he enlists the help of furry friends. KHOL’s Will Walkey in Jackson shares how joint canine and human research could help wildlife managers better preserve one of Wyoming’s most iconic species.

On a recent Friday, Troy Koser was walking in the brush beside the Snake River in Wilson, inspecting the tips of the vegetation. The thing he was looking for was the size of a pinhead. But this little organism can pack a big punch.

“They’re really small, but there’s going to be, you know, 100, 200 here. And you can imagine that when a moose is moving. It all looks like a moose’s belly height,” Koser said. . “So they hit several of these little balls at once. But then you get hundreds of grubs on you and those hundreds of grubs, you know, they’re on for the rest of the year.

These tiny tick balls are usually found at the tip of vegetation, but they can contain hundreds of insects.

This is what the local moose population has faced for at least a few centuries. Even when the settlers first arrived in Jackson Hole, they observed winter ticks, as well as moose, elk, and deer trying to eliminate the insects when they shed their coats in the spring.

“They’re not having a good time,” Koser said. “If they’re spending all that time rubbing, then that’s less time eating. It’s less time being vigilant, right? Toughest time of year for them.”

Tick ​​populations may also increase or have a different effect on moose as the climate changes in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. That’s what Koser is studying at Montana State University, and he’s working with local biologists to figure out exactly how the current climate projections – things like more precipitation, earlier snowmelt, and drought – could affect the unhealthy relationship ticks and moose have today.

“We don’t necessarily know how many bad ticks are and whether hair loss is really death or horrible for them. We just know it looks bad and we’re trying to figure out how bad it is. “, did he declare. .

But to accurately track ticks, Koser must find them, which is not always an easy task with our limited human vision. This is where a furry sidekick named Frost comes in.

Frost is a mixed-breed puppy whose daily job it is to spot invasive species around Jackson Hole. Aimee Hurt is a co-founder of the Working Dogs for Conservation organization, and she helps train Frost to see if he can smell small tick balls on the ground.

“From a trainer’s perspective, the job is to figure out how to get the dog to be able to do this,” Hurt said. “And then measure like, okay, so they can do it to the best of their ability, is that ability useful enough to be used?” “

During practice, Hurt and Koser set up a small obstacle course for Frost. There are plant clippings with tick balls in wire cages through the woods, as well as insect-free cages. The idea is to assess whether the dog can understand which is which.

    A woman with his dog who thinks he has found a live sample of a tick bullet, he sits down and points his nose to the cage.

When Frost thinks he has found a live sample of a tick bullet, he sits up and points his nose to the cage.

Hurt said Frost approached plants more and more gently and detected tick scents further and further away. No one has ever tried to see if dogs can detect winter ticks before, so there is a lot of trial and error. But even small signs of progress could have a big impact.

Dog

Working Dogs for Conservation trains dogs around the world, including Frost, to help protect “wildlife and wild places”.

“He knows the smell of ticks and he knows he will find them most often at the tips of plants. So he connects two of the most important points, namely understanding the smell and knowing where to find them,” said Hurt. “Because when they know where to find them, they know how to look for them. “

If Frost shows he can be useful in the field, coaches can start taking him out for real to collect data. And while winter ticks will likely never be eradicated in Jackson, Koser said it’s important to understand the extent of the problem for the moose.

“Since they are endemic, I guess for the most part, [wildlife] managers don’t really know how to get rid of it. This will mainly be about how much money should I spend on protecting our moose given climate change and what we think will happen with ticks? ”He said.

Koser also said his research sheds more light on the stresses moose go through every day, from avoiding trucks on Highway 22, bypassing fences for livestock and enduring tiny blood-sucking parasites.

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