Finn the Labrador retriever was tuckered out, and her master, Lauren Wendt, knew it.
This dog’s dogs were barking, the result of two consecutive days of her pooch pads pounding on the weathered, rounded rocks omnipresent along the Snake River.
“We had a really long day yesterday and have been searching for three hours today,” Wendt said on a Thursday in August while she also walked over cobble strewn on an island. “So her tank’s on empty.”
Finn’s search was not for the conventional items that come to mind when you think of a trained Labrador retriever: narcotics, game birds, people. Instead she was on a mission to find two species of noxious, invasive plants that have been trying to invade Jackson Hole’s riparian zones for two decades. Her nose was fixed on the scent that emanates out from saltcedar and perennial pepperweed plants, though by midday it had been at least an hour since she’d last sniffed one out.
Finn had lost a bit of interest and was worn out.
But that was just a lull in an otherwise successful multiweek canine sweep of the Snake’s mid-river islands for saltcedar and pepperweed. Over six days Finn and a Working Dogs for Conservation counterpart found 41 perennial pepperweed plants and one saltcedar plant.
“We don’t enjoy finding them, but it’s nice to know that they were found, rather than missed,” said Lesley Beckworth, the landowner program coordinator for the Teton County Weed and Pest District.
A lot of the plants the dogs sniffed out were “very small,” she added, and would have been extremely difficult for humans to find.
Mark Daluge, Beckworth’s colleague and Weed and Pest’s assistant director, is as familiar as anyone with the fight to snuff out the saltcedar and pepperweed that linger in Teton County.
“We have decreased the population significantly,” Daluge said.
There was a point in the early 2000s, he explained, when pepperweed was popping up in enough places that it was trending toward becoming a dominant plant in near Jackson Hole rivers, where the Eurasian weed tends to thrive.
Daluge has seen himself what a pepperweed monoculture looks like, in places like the lower Green River. Although the milky white flowers on the waist-high plants wisping in the wind may be easy on the eyes, it’s capable of choking out native species and compromising habitat native wildlife depends on.
“I’ve seen what it can do,” Daluge said. “It really can change the ecosystem.”
The early days of Weed and Pest’s pepperweed pulls were fruitful. They’d fill big garbage bags full of it, and lots of them.
“Now we’re down to a handful of plants,” Daluge said. “We got to the point where we couldn’t find anymore with the human eye, so we brought the dog in to locate them for us.”
A presentation about using dogs to find zebra mussels at a North American Invasive Species Management Association conference planted the seed of the idea. Beckworth was in attendance, and she wondered if they could train dogs to search for two of the more troublesome nonnative plans that his district deals with.
The answer was yes, and by 2020 Weed and Pest brought on Working Dogs for Conservation to search the stretch of the Snake between Moose and Wilson.
The collaboration with Bozeman, Montana-based nonprofit is possible only because of volunteers who chauffeur the canine and human crews down the river. This year Snake River Fund, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Bridger-Teton National Forest, Trout Unlimited and Mad River Boat Trips all chipped in boats and personnel and board members’ time. Grants and funding from the U.S. Forest Service, Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee and Teton Conservation District has underwritten the project.
The three dog teams that debuted in 2020 outperformed human teams that searched the river concurrently, marking a dozen new perennial pepperweed locations that year. This summer’s search was farther down valley, primarily in the stretch of the Snake from Wilson to South Park, but also in areas that weren’t searched last year downstream of the Gros Ventre’s confluence with the Snake.
The dog teams’ findings — of 41 new pepperweed locations — suggest that the southern valley is much more infested than where the Snake flows through Grand Teton National Park.
It’s no easy feat to train a dog to smell and sign for something like a small plant.
Finn, who is Wendt’s personal dog, was among the select few pups who successfully navigated the Working Dogs for Conservation vetting process. The conservation detection dog organization, which has been dispatched to Teton County before, screens about 100 dogs for every one they bring on. Of those, only about a third work out.
Ahead of being brought on by Working Dogs for Conservation (which was a package deal when Wendt took the job), Finn was a waterfowl hunting dog. Then she joined her owner in working for a couple of years on a disaster search and rescue team, where was trained to locate human remains. Since coming aboard with Working Dogs for Conservation, she’s been trained on a half dozen scents that aid wildlife research, law enforcement and land management: black-footed ferrets, kit fox scat, elephant ivory, shark fins and caviar.
Now the good-natured purebred chocolate lab has added perennial pepperweed and saltcedar to her repertoire. If all goes according to plan, she’ll be back in Jackson Hole during the summer for years to come. The dogs will be used for saltcedar and pepperweed sweeps annually, running from the Jackson Lake Dam all the way to the Elbow boat ramp. Next up, tentatively, is the Deadman’s-to-Moose stretch of the river.
“We plan on having them come back every year, for a long time,” Daluge said. “If we go a number of years without looking for it, there’s the possibility that things will get out of hand again.”
Note: This story has been modified to correct which Teton County Weed and Pest employee was inspired by the North American Invasive Species Management Association conference and came up with the idea of using dogs to find pepperweed and saltcedar.