Beating the Bushes for Carnivore Scat

By Aimee Hurt

There I stood upon a steep hillside in the lush and wild heart of Idaho, using all fours to steady myself, though not nearly as deftly as my canine co-worker, Wicket. I’d grab onto the brush to keep it from scratching my face and use it to haul myself upward, inching my way up the slope. I’d take five or six steps, slowly, as though I were wading through pudding, and occasionally call out to Maggie, my human colleague who I couldn’t see, though only 20 feet away. Wicket was wearing a little bell that kept up a constant jangle as she threaded through the brush in search of her target. For the next two hours we trudged onward in this way to the corner point of our survey, just 10 football fields away.

Wicket and I work for Working Dogs for Conservation (WDC), which trains dogs to detect wildlife samples—in this case the feces (or "scat") of fishers and bears. This non-invasive alternative for wildlife researchers can convert these piles of scat into mountains of data about animal presence, habitat use, diet selection, sex, relatedness and even individual identity, without the use of baiting, luring, trapping, handling or radio-collaring the animals.

Fishers are native North American forest predators of the Mustelid family, which also includes martens and wolverines. These weasel-like animals weigh about 10 pounds and are able to hunt porcupines by travelling up and down trees as easily as on the ground. Their current range is much smaller than it historically once was. In fact, fishers were thought to be extinct throughout the Rocky Mountains in the late 1950s and were reintroduced to the area. However, our collaborator, Michael Schwartz, Ph.D., of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station Wildlife Genetics Lab discovered through genetic analysis that not all members of the native population were in fact gone; some persisted with their unique genetic code revealing their secret. Dr. Schwartz asked WDC to find scat samples so that he could learn which areas contained animals from the native population, and what habitats and food items they prefer.

With a couple hundred kilometers behind us and dozens of scats already in our coffers, support from the Animal Welfare Institute’s Christine Stevens Wildlife Award will help us expand our search this year to the Great Burn area—250,000 roadless acres of some of the most remote, ecologically pristine forest in the Northern Rockies—where we will train the dogs to detect the scents of wolf, lynx and wolverine scat. These are all species of conservation concern, and are often trapped and handled in traditional monitoring methods. Although the Great Burn may provide vital habitat for these species, they are not easily observed, and their status in this area is relatively unknown. With Wicket’s keen nose, we will be able to gather information about these animals with their only knowledge of us being the jingle-jangle of her bell.