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Story and photos by Kristie Burns, from the Summer 2019 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
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It has all the elements of a good science fiction novel—an invasive species that hides in darkness and tries to take over native species using deception and disguise. It has all the elements of a good superhero movie—superheroes that work under the light of the moon and a veil of fog using superpowers that go beyond human ability.
However, this story is not science fiction—it is pure environmental science.
At night, the invasive species Lespedeza cuneate (Chinese bush-clover) hides beneath the cover of taller prairie plants, slowly taking over the prairie ecosystem, emitting chemicals that inhibit growth of other plants, preventing pollinator plants and healthy prairie grasses from thriving on the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles east of Des Moines. Its deception is taken a step further because it closely resembles the native Lespedeza capitata (round-headed bush clover) and remains hidden from human eyes until it is time to release its seeds into the environment. By that time it is too late and the damage has been done.
Refuge biologist Karen Viste-Sparkman shares that this invasive species has even adapted to many traditional methods of eradication. She says, “This species is adapted to fire. It will just grow, and when you burn it, you actually get more because the seeds are stimulated to grow when you burn it. Just everything we usually do makes it grow and spread more.”
All these factors make Lespedeza cuneate a formidable foe. However, they are no match for our champions.
This morning two trackers will take on their first mission—the challenge of hunting down these invaders and marking them so the refuge staff can eliminate them. But these trackers use superpowers that humans lack. They have 220 million olfactory receptors in their noses (compared to only 5 million in the average human’s nose) and a brain that dedicates 40 times more space to analyzing smells than the average human. They hunt using “scentscape” rather than vision.
For these trackers are not human, but two canines—Lily, a Labrador retriever, and Utah, a border collie—who work with their handler, biologist Melissa Steen, to locate this invasive species. Among more than 200 native species on the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Lily and Utah have the ability to smell and track down just one—Lespedeza cuneate. And according to the Working Dogs for Conservation website, their dogs can even detect weeds before they break the surface of the earth.
Their website describes their skills in more detail saying, “Dogs’ noses are designed so that they can smell continuously (not just on the inhale, as we do). They can determine which nostril an odor arrived in first, which helps them locate a scent in space. They even have an additional olfactory organ—and dedicated processing center in the brain—devoted just to scenting pheromones.”
“If you make the analogy to vision,” says James Walker, former director of Florida State’s Sensory Research, “what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away.”
While the Lespedeza lurks in the tall prairie grasses, Utah and Lily stretch their legs out of their dog cots and enjoy breakfast with their handler, Melissa Steen. Melissa throws back the covers at the Super 8 and starts their day at 4 a.m. by brewing a cup of hotel Colombian and enjoying a bowl of yogurt or Casey’s breakfast pizza. She fills Utah’s bowl with his standard raw diet food and Lily’s bowl with some high-quality kibble, with a rotation of extras like kefir, sardines and bone broth. Today they both get a bowl of bone broth as well to keep them hydrated. Although they start before the sun rises to avoid the heat, by the time they end their morning rounds the temperatures will reach into the 90s.
Melissa, Lily and Utah arrive to the refuge in their well-loved, dust covered 4x4 at about 5:15 a.m., just before the sun rises over the rolling hills and surrounding farms. A thick fog covers the ground, adding to the mood of excitement, intrigue and adventure. How many invaders will the team track down today?
The first order of business for Lily is to jump out of the truck and embrace the land by rolling in the dewy grass. Lily is one of the most enthusiastic workers one can meet. She is so excited to get out of the truck she jumps out before she’s ready, getting outfitted as the sun starts to rise a little higher and reflects in the windows of the truck.
Like many superheroes, Lily has an adverse back-story to tell. By the time Lily was three years old, she had already lived in five different homes until a rescue in Georgia saw her potential as a working dog. The quirky nature and boundless energy that made her an unattractive pet have been her greatest asset as she works searching for endangered wildlife and invasive pests. She is trained to detect, track and show her handler 12 specific scents, including grizzly bear and white-footed vole scats.
As Lily rolls in the prairie grasses, her entire body and face quiver and wiggle with pure joy. She becomes covered in the scents of the prairie but is soon ready to find that one specific scent she is here to detect.
But first, Melissa and Lily both need to make sure they are prepared for the day’s work. They will be walking for up to four hours as the temperature gets hotter and hotter. They only take breaks for water. Still morning, Melissa’s GPS shows that she walked 7.5 miles, and Lily’s GPS showed that she walked 10.6 miles on rough terrain. On more even ground, these numbers can reach 12.4 miles.
Melissa’s camel-pack style backpack includes water for the dog, a bottle of water for her, a first aid kit, a cooling cloth for the dog, a dog vest, a waist pack with a ball used as a reward for the dogs, a notebook to record information, flags to mark locations of invasive species, a GPS for tracking search and find locations, and a sample of the plant just in case the dog needs a reminder. Lily’s preparations include a special vest that fits a GPS and a collar just in case Melissa needs to attach a lead.
Once Melissa and Lily are outfitted, they leave the truck and start at the section of prairie they are searching for the day. Utah stays behind in the shade with a cool breeze stimulating his senses with anticipation for the work to come. The sun is just starting to rise. Lily is in good hands with Melissa. Melissa graduated from Kansas State University with B.A.s in biology, psychology, and natural resources and environmental science. Since her graduation, she has worked in Zambia for the Peace Corps, as a vet tech, as a canine day care provider and gave animal care at Denali National Parks’ sled dog kennel.
Refuge biologist Viste-Sparkman says Melissa’s experience as a biologist is what makes this work team so powerful. She shares, “Having a biologist is a big advantage to us rather than just somebody who knows about dogs but can’t necessarily do the rest of the work. You can tell Melissa knows how to record data and understands what she is doing. It isn’t just numbers to her. You can tell she is connected to the data in some way and what we are trying to accomplish here.”
The first half hour of their work is done under the light of the full moon. The rising sun behind them reflects a colorful painting onto the moon and clouds above the prairie. During this time, Lily is constantly sniffing her surroundings, moving ahead, then retracing her steps, searching for Lespedeza hiding in the tall prairie grasses.
An hour into their day, the sun finally peeks over the horizon and the temperature increases from 73 to 76 degrees. The prairie grasses are so tall that Lily cannot even be seen as she searches through the lofty plants. But Lily does not remain hidden for long. She enthusiastically runs from one area to another, sniffing intensely, hoping to find the invasive species she is seeking. This early morning work is refreshing when the weather is cool and the grass is wet.
Lily stays happily damp from the tall prairie grasses for the first hour of the morning. This helps keep her cool and hydrated.
After a few short hours, Lily has tracked down two small, but destructive, patches of Lespedeza. The sun has already reached a much higher point in the sky and Lily’s coat becomes dry and warm. Melissa unhooks the hose from her backpack and gives Lily a generous drink while also spritzing her head a bit with some extra water. The temperature has quickly reached 83 degrees. Although Lily enjoys this brief respite from the heat, she is deep into “mission mode” and eager to track down more invaders. One of the standard commands that Melissa uses with Utah and Lily is “go find it,” which is their signal to start. However, they rarely need encouragement. Other commands she uses include “too far,” “this way,” “go find more” and “you got that one.”
Watching Lily, I can see the fire of purpose in her eyes and her stride. She knows what she came here to find and nothing will deter her—not the meadowlarks that sing in the bushes, not the pheasants that sometimes fly up startled in the tall grasses and certainly not the photographer who follows her around, often putting a camera in her face. If she wanders too far, however, Melissa uses the command “too far,” and Lily comes back. After all, they have a grid to cover, and the area must be searched in an orderly manner. Yesterday, Lily found more than 60 patches of invasive plants. Today, however, there are fewer patches to find, so she has been wandering a bit further.
Melissa sometimes offers additional instructions or encouragement beyond basic instructions like “too far.” Once Lily returns, Melissa puts up her hands and looks confused, acting as if she is desperately seeking help from Lily. Although Melissa must also be trained to identify the plants they are seeking, she must be careful to give Lily the impression that she doesn’t know anything. This helps encourage Lily who wants to earn her treat (of playing with the ball) and also please her handler. This also helps avoid a situation where the detection dog may become lazy and just wait for their handler to find plants.
But even without commands and a mission there is plenty to keep the dogs, Melissa, and I alert on the prairie this morning. There are other challenges of the terrain to consider. The prairie is covered with dips, little valleys, bison wallows, ant hills, holes, and even little streams. Lily easily navigates nature’s obstacle courses, jumps over a stream, and then turns around to encourage Melissa, who does not enjoy being wet as much as Lily does.
Today, a small herd of curious bison in the distance keeps an eye on Melissa and Lily. My job is to keep an eye on the bison while I am taking photos, making sure they don’t get too close to our small group. However, our group is in more danger of stepping on some fresh gifts the bison left for hidden for us in the prairie flowers, rather than having any close-up bison encounters.
As the bison decide the dogs and humans trekking across their prairie are less interesting than grazing, they move away, and we move back towards the 4x4 parked on the road. It is time for Lily to get a break and Utah to start his work. Melissa makes sure her equipment is still working well, checks her GPS and refills the camel-pack with water.
Her GPS unit shows her where patches of invasive species were found last time Working Dogs for Conservation did a survey and guides her in today’s search. Viste-Sparkman says, once the survey is complete they send us a report with GPS points and what they found. “This also allows us to see how things are changing over time. So we can look at the end and compare and see what progress we have made.”
Utah, the border collie, is just as enthusiastic as Lily when he knows it is time for him to do his important work. He jumps, wags his tail and does a little dance. It makes it challenging for Melissa to put his tracking vest on, but it soon gets done.
Not soon enough for Utah, though. He is ready to launch before the vest straps are even secured. There is a slight breed difference between how labs work, more far ranging, and border collies, who are smart, high-energy dogs but also conserve energy better. Utah joined the Working Dogs for Conservation pack in 2017 but is a standout in the group. He can already distinguish three scents, including the Chinese bush-clover he is seeking today. His “superhero” backstory is one of natural and unusual talent.
Working Dogs for Conservation says, “Utah started his training with human-collected kit fox scat. There is usually a learning curve when dogs move from bagged sample scats to ones ‘straight from the fox’—collected samples can have a markedly different scent than naturally occurring scat, and field conditions can be confusing, with multiple wild canids using the same latrines. But Utah was ready to jump straight to the big leagues. He began alerting to wild scats his very first day in the field, and he hasn’t slowed down since.”
Utah jumps onto the road, eager to start, and Melissa finishes the preparations by slipping Utah’s GPS unit into his vest. Utah is ready. He wants to start—but where is Melissa? He checks. Because he is the newest trainee he tends to stay nearer to Melissa than Lily does. He’s also a well-trained dog and knows he needs to wait, but he is just so excited! He can hear the sounds of a dickcissel singing from atop a tall prairie flower. He can see a few scattered bison in the distance. He can feel the warm sun hitting his back. It is now 86 degrees. But none of these things matter. All he wants to do is hunt down the invaders.
The wind picks up on the prairie, which is a welcome gift for the two humans trying to follow a very eager canine. He starts out close to Melissa, but gains more and more confidence. He soon ends up yards ahead of her. However, for Utah, this wind has more significance. With the wind blowing towards him, Utah can pick up the scent of Lespedeza cuneate more readily.
And it is only a matter of minutes before he finds his first patch. Utah is trained to find the plant and then sit down behind it with his paws around one of the plants. We see him sitting ahead of us so Melissa runs ahead to see what he has found. He is so eager to show Melissa his success that he can barely contain himself. He is sitting in the proper position, but his tail is wagging, his body is trembling with excitement, his mouth is open and his eyes are earnest. He is eager to please, but also keen to play with the ball she is carrying in her pack, a favorite prize he looks forward to.
And what he has accomplished is no small feat. According to Viste-Sparkman, the refuge used to hire five interns to spend the entire summer walking through only part of the fields the dogs are able to cover. And even with the expanded area, the dogs are able to finish the job in less than two weeks. Not only that, but Utah has found a small Lespedeza plant that was completely hidden to the human eye by the tall prairie grasses and has managed to track it down before it started going to seed.
This is where Melissa’s job comes to the forefront. She marks the area with a flag. If there is more than one plant, she will place the flag in the middle of the patch. Next, she records the exact location of the plant using her GPS. After that, Melissa records how big the radius of the patch is, how many plants there are, and how far away the dog detected it from.
Utah is so well trained that he waits patiently, but with restless anticipation as she finishes up. Once the recording process is done, the moment Utah has been waiting for arrives. Melissa throws the ball into the air and Utah fetches it and brings it back.
Utah leaps, contorts, and flies through the air to catch this treasured object and bring it back to his handler. How long he plays depends on how much work there is left to do, how dense the area they are searching is and the current temperature. As desired as the ball is, it could cause Utah to overheat, so occasionally other treats are offered instead.
The days are filled with hard work, adventure, joy and the defeat of an evil invasive species on the prairie. As is often said, “not all heroes wear capes”—in fact, this one wears a dog vest. Lily knows her value and strikes a hero’s pose on a prairie rock as the day comes to a close. She might even be thinking of what comes next. After a long morning on the hot prairie, Melissa takes the dogs down to a stream to enjoy a swim while she enjoys some handmade ice cream at a local shop.
Our other prairie hero, Melissa, wears a backpack. But as the morning sun silhouettes her form, I think I might also see the outline of a cape.