The 3-year-old Belgian Malinois named Jax was jacked, and the specialized mollusk-sniffing pup looked stoked to have found a pen cap-size vial of exotic mussels hidden along the stern of a Boston Whaler.
Locating the planted vial, which contained a sampling of a potentially ecology-devastating aquatic species, was the task at hand. Within seconds Jax found and snout-swatted the vial from its hiding place on the National Park Service vessel, which was trailered through for a trial run. He appeared excited to have executed the job.
But the canine exhilaration wasn’t at all about the invasive species. Jax’s glee was instead all about what came next: a treat. In this case the reward was a chance to play “two ball,” a game that involves Jax getting a chance to play with ... two balls.
“Good boy!” Aimee Hurt, his handler, praised Jax from the Moose Post Office parking lot on Tuesday morning. “That’s a good boy! That’s a good boy!”
“You can see that he doesn’t care about the mussels,” said Hurt, the director of special projects for Working Dogs for Conservation. “That’s called a passive alert. He turns away from it and looks at me. That’s less important with mussels, but more important when we’re searching for live, endangered species like tortoises — we don’t want the dog to stay focused on the live animal.”
Grand Teton National Park, one of eight National Park Service properties contracting with Working Dogs for Conservation, does care a lot about the mussels Jax is charged with finding.
Two species that are most worrisome are zebra and Quagga mussels. Although there’s never been a detection in northwest Wyoming, lakes here are susceptible to invasion from the tiny, fast-reproducing mussels, which are native to eastern European waters.
“They’re the size of a pinhead,” Teton Park fisheries biologist Chad Whaley said. “And they encrust everything.”
“That’s why we talk about, ‘Drain, Clean and Dry,’” he said, “because if you have a puddle of water you could potentially have mussels.”
Having Jax at the mandatory watercraft check stations in the park gives Grand Teton one more tool to ensure any mussels that might be catching a ride from invaded waters elsewhere in the United States are found before they dislodge in a place like Jenny Lake.
A perk of having the pooches at the check stations is that they make the inspection process more enjoyable for the technicians who staff them, and for the recreating public who are sometimes waiting in line.
“The biggest impact I would say that we’re seeing is that people take a great interest in this now,” said Mike Canetta, a Grand Teton ranger who was at the Moose station Tuesday. “They come to the station, and if they’re frustrated that they’re being inspected, we’ll just start talking about dogs.”
When that happens, he said, moods improve.
Jax seemed to be enjoying his Teton park sojourn as well. His previous Working Dogs for Conservation deployments had him near Meeteetse searching for black-footed ferrets and in Ohio helping researchers find bobcat scat. Next up the Malinois heads to Arizona, where he’ll again help wildlife managers pinpoint black-footed ferrets that were recently reintroduced.
Jax’s life is that of an itinerant worker, though he’s always accompanied by one of his “aunties” from Missoula-based Working Dogs for Conservation’s all-women staff, Hurt said.