Working dogs learn new tricks when looking for ticks

On a Friday, Troy Koser was walking in the undergrowth next to the Snake River in Wilson, examining the tops of vegetation. The thing he was looking for is about the size of the head of a pin. But this little organism can deal a big blow.

“They are very small, but there will be 100, 200 here. And you can imagine that when a moose passes by. It’s all like elk belly height, ”said Koser. “So they hit several of those little little balls at the same time. But then you get hundreds of larvae with you and those hundreds of larvae are out for the rest of the year.

These tiny balls of ticks are generally found at the top of vegetation, but there can be hundreds of bugs on them.

This is what the local elk population has been dealing with for at least several centuries. Even when pioneers first came to Jackson Hole, they watched winter ticks along with moose, elk, and deer trying to rub the beetles off them when they took off their coats in the spring.

“You’re not having a good time,” said Koser. “If they spend all the time rubbing, that’s less time to eat. Less time to be vigilant, right? You are just not happy. You’re annoyed and have other things to do. It’s the hardest time of the year for them. “

Tick ​​populations could also grow or affect moose differently as the climate changes in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Koser is studying this at Montana State University and is working with local biologists to find out exactly how current climate projections – such as more rain, earlier snowmelt and drought – could affect the unhealthy relationship between ticks and moose.

“We don’t necessarily know how many ticks are bad and whether hair loss really leads to death or terrible consequences for them. We just know it looks bad and we try to find out how bad it is, ”he said.

But to track ticks closely, Koser has to find them, which is not always easy with our limited human eyesight. This is where a furry buddy named Frost comes in.

Frost is a mixed breed pup whose main job is to sniff out invasive species in the Jackson Hole area. Aimee Hurt is a co-founder of the Working Dogs for Conservation organization and helps Frost train to smell small tick balls in the field.

“From the trainer’s point of view, the job is figuring out how to get the dog to do this,” said Hurt. “And then you measure, okay, so you can do the best you can, is that skill helpful enough to be used?”

During the training, Hurt and Koser set up a small obstacle course for frost. There are prunings with tick balls in wire cages all over the forest, as well as some cages without beetles. The idea is to judge if the pooch can figure out what is what.

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When Frost thinks he has found a living sample of a tick ball, he sits down and points his nose at the cage.

Hurt said frost is always better at getting closer to plants and recognizing tick scents from further away. Nobody has ever tried to see if dogs can sniff out winter ticks before, so there are many trials and errors. But even small advances can have a big impact.

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Working Dogs for Conservation trains dogs around the world, including Frost, to help protect “Wildlife and Wild Places”.

“He knows the tick smell, and he knows that most of the time he finds them on the tips of plants, so he connects two of the most important things, namely understanding the smell and knowing where to find it,” said Hurt. “Because if you know where to find it, you can look for it.”

When Frost shows he can be useful in the field, coaches can put him to the test to collect data. And while winter ticks will likely never be eradicated in Jackson, Koser said it was important to understand the scale of the problem for moose.

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

Koser also said his research would shed more light on how much stress moose go through each day, from avoiding trucks on Highway 22 to navigating around cattle fences to tiny, blood-sucking parasites.

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This report was prepared for the Rocky Mountain Community Radio Coalition of which KSUT is a member. RMCR has more than 15 member stations in Colorado and parts of Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico.

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