[of ash wood],” says Abrahamson.
Although their skills in the brush piles proved superior, Whitelaw admits that the dogs are not perfect at locating infested trees.
“The infestation needs to be low enough on the trunk for dogs to get the scent,” she explains. “So, for new infestations that are higher up in the trees, the dogs are not as accurate.”
Even so, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture recognized the possibilities for using the dogs’ superior scent skills to assist with emerald ash borer detection and treatment.
At the end of the pilot project, the team recommended employing a detection dog/handler team (trained by Working Dogs for Conservation) to inspect firewood facilities, county brush piles and wood products producers to prevent the movement of infested wood into non-infested counties or partnering with Working Dogs for Conservation to perform frequent seasonal inspections.
“Emerald ash borer doesn’t move quickly unless we help it,” says Whitelaw.
In forests, Abrahamson believes the dogs could be useful to detect new areas of emerald ash borer infestation, helping forest managers by pinpointing what trees are infested and need treatment.
Although there was a lot of excitement about the project, securing funding proved difficult and the project was discontinued.
“It was unfortunate that their funding fell through because they were great partners and we saw a lot of potential,” says Whitelaw.
Despite the disappointment, it wasn’t long before Tia, Lily and Wicket were called back to work.
Lily does a thorough search of a brush pile in the hopes of finding infested ash wood. Credit: Working Dogs for Conservation.
Working Dogs for Conservation received calls from other states interested in their successes using dogs to find ash wood and emerald ash borer, including Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Laura Speight, a wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, had heard about the Minnesota project and invited the nonprofit to help with emerald ash borer-related outreach and education in Texas.
Although Texas doesn’t have a problem with emerald ash borer — yet — forests in neighboring states, including Arkansas and Louisiana, have recorded infestations of the invasive insects. Speight hopes that being proactive could help keep emerald ash borer from crossing the border into the Lone Star State.
“It’s hard to explain to the public why they should care about a little beetle,” she says. “If it comes to Texas, we know it’s going to be tough to stop it so we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to bring the dogs to northeast Texas to capture people’s attention and educate them about emerald ash borer?’”
In February, Working Dogs for Conservation traveled to Texas with Wicket and Tia. During the trip, handlers spent three weeks meeting with stakeholders and demonstrating the dogs’ skills.
The canine conservationists got rave reviews from representatives of organizations like Texas A&M Forest Service and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service — and Speight believes the public will respond the same way.
“These dogs know how to work a crowd,” she says. “The public might not remember me talking about emerald ash borer but they are going to remember the dogs; that kind of engagement is the key to invasive species education.”
The dogs were once again the stars of the show when they returned to execute the Texas Parks and Wildlife-created outreach and education plan in May. Staff from Texas Parks and Wildlife and Texas A&M Forest Service visited parks, campgrounds and forests with the dogs and their handlers, asking campers for permission to search firewood. While the dogs searched for ash wood, staff talked to campers about emerald ash borer and their role in preventing its spread.
“Even if campers don’t have ash wood, the search still works because it gives the forest service a chance to talk to people about the issue,” Speight says.
In fact, talking to people about the issue — and their role in preventing the spread of emerald ash borer — might be the key to keeping the invasive insects from crossing the border into the state.
“We’d like not to have emerald ash borer in the state; if that’s not possible, we want to minimize the impact, slow the spread and take action to minimize losses,” says Allen Smith, forest health coordinator for Texas A&M Forest Service. “To make that happen, we’re making a pretty hard effort to educate as many people as we can.”
Like Minnesota, Texas is struggling with the budget for emerald ash borer prevention, especially because no infestations have been recorded. To cover the costs of the project, Speight got creative with funding, using a grant earmarked for other invasive species prevention and rolled emerald ash borer education into the project. The effort, she believes, is worth the investment.
Smith believes education and outreach events (with dogs as the tail-wagging, face-licking representatives for the issue) are essential to maintaining the state’s emerald ash borer-free status.
“The real value of the dog is a conduit to open discussion,” he says. “We can talk to [campers] about emerald ash borer and if we find ash or infested wood, we can dispose of it before the beetles have a chance to emerge.”
From Speight’s perspective the dogs’ involvement with the initiative will have a more powerful and longstanding impact on the public’s awareness of such an important environmental issue.
“It’s hard to make people aware of a problem if it’s not on their radar,” Speight says. “The dogs will help us get people’s attention and educate them about how destructive emerald ash borer can be — that awareness can help save trees.”
North Carolina-based journalist Jodi Helmer shares her home with five rescue dogs who can sniff out treats but not much else. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Modern Farmer and Entrepreneur.