TUXEDO, N.Y. – In brushy terrain where a botanical interloper evades detection by the human eye, count on Dia to sniff it out.
Dia is a spunky Labrador retriever trained to track down a yellow-flowered shrub that's taking root in New York state parks. She's one of a new breed of detection dog assisting conservationists in the fight against invasive species.
With her handler, Joshua Beese, of the nonprofit New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, Dia began last fall to hunt for Scotch broom in Bear Mountain and Harriman state parks about 50 miles north of New York City.
The shrub, which displaces native plants with thickets impenetrable to wildlife, is a widespread noxious weed in the Pacific Northwest but is fairly new to New York. Land managers hope to eradicate it before it becomes widespread.
“If we had to find all these plants ourselves, combing the grass for every tiny plant, it would take so much longer – and we'd still miss a lot,” Beese said on a recent morning after Dia showed him hundreds of Scotch broom shoots hidden in a field of tall grass and sweetfern.
The plants had been overlooked by volunteers with the conference's Invasives Strike Force who had previously pulled 2,500 plants from the search area.
Detection dogs have long been used to sniff out drugs, explosives, cadavers and disaster survivors. In the mid-'90s, handlers started training them for conservation tasks such as sniffing out scat from endangered species and detecting trafficked ivory. Now, the olfactory prowess of detection dogs is becoming an important tool in the fight against invasive plants and insects.
“Our field in the last 15 years has just exploded,” said Pete Coppolillo, executive director of the nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation in Bozeman, Montana. The organization partners with government agencies, researchers and nonprofits on five continents to provide trained dogs and handlers for conservation projects.