Photo © Elizabeth Stone
Noxious weeds currently cover 8 million acres in Montana, or 9% of the state.
Widely considered by both managers and citizens to be one of the most important threats to Montana's environment, noxious weeds are invasive species of plants that reduce available forage for both livestock and wildlife, and are recognized to have serious negative impacts on agricultural crops, watersheds, and native ecosystems across the state.
Add to that long list of problems the possibility that our changing climate may make it even easier for some noxious weed species (like cheatgrass) to spread across the state, and the need for new and innovative solutions to this problem becomes clear.
Man's Best Friend to the Rescue
Meet Seamus (pictured above), a young border collie who was adopted from Heart of the Valley animal shelter in Bozeman in 2010, and Wibaux, a happy-go-lucky black lab who also works as a cadaver dog.
Both dogs work with Working Dogs for Conservation, a Montana-based non-profit organization that uses specially trained detection dogs to solve conservation problems.
Seamus and Wibaux spend their time these days searching for a noxious weed called Dyer's woad (see photos in link at right) on Mount Sentinel in Missoula, the newest tool in a 14-year effort by the University of Montana, the Montana Dyer's Woad Task Force, the Clark Fork chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society, and agencies to eradicate this unwanted plant.
Since the project began over a decade ago, these groups have been so successful in finding, pulling, and spraying Dyer's woad plants on the mountain that very few plants are left today, which is why Marilyn Marler, Natural Areas Specialist at the University of Montana, asked Working Dogs for Conservation to help them find all remaining seed plants.
A Dyer's woad plant can be three-feet tall with flowers or a tiny little root fragment buried in the dirt. Once trained onto the scent of the Dyer's woad plant, dogs' sensitive noses allow them to find this plant in all of its forms, especially small, non-flowering plants that are missed by people and can later reproduce.
By sitting and alerting the biologists from Working Dogs for Conservation who work alongside them, Seamus and Wibaux are able to "show" them each of the Dyer's woad plants that they find so that each can be pulled or sprayed.
The goal of the project is to completely eliminate Dyer's woad from Mount Sentinel, which finally looks possible: this would be a huge success story in a state where even controlling the spread of weed patches has, until now, been extremely difficult to manage - with complete eradication usually considered to be impossible.
In the meantime, you might just see these dogs and their handlers out on the mountain searching for noxious weeds: they'll be the ones having a fabulous time playing with their special dog toys as a reward for each Dyer's woad plant found.