Collaboration in Civic Spheres

UW study: scat-sniffing dogs can help in spotted owl counts

by Matt Rosenberg September 10th, 2012

Conservation biologists at the University of Washington in Seattle report that dogs trained to sniff out small pellets of dried fecal matter from the threatened species the northern spotted owl can play an important role in ongoing efforts to gauge its survival in the forests of the West and Northwest. In turn, conservationists would be able to better target areas where the spotted owl is most threatened and take or propose countermeasures accordingly.

In a study recently published in full and available to all for free at the open access journal known as PLoS (Public Library of Science) One, the UW research team reported that based on field experiments, the so-called detection dogs could often help confirm the presence of the northern spotted owl in forests when the traditional “vocalization” or call and response method could not. The researchers say that’s because the spotted owl will not respond to calls if its competitor species, the barred owl, is present, as is sometimes the case.

The Northern Spotted Owl was declared a threatened species in 1990 under the Endangered Species Act. It got its first critical habitat designation in 1992 and additional protections under the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes that the main threats to its survival are loss of habitat, which has declined by 60 percent or more in the last 190 years, and the barred owl. Spotted owl population is decreasing at the rate of almost three percent annually, the service says, and the remaining habitat could be gone in one to three decades. This makes ongoing and more accurate counts especially important, to see if the rate of decline can be slowed.

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Using 20 historic spotted owl territories in California plus a vocalization team and a dog team of a Labrador retriever mix and an Australian cattle dog mix that had been trained under a work-reward scheme to sniff out the fecal pellets, the UW researchers tested the relative effectiveness of the two approaches. They paid special attention to areas frequented by both the spotted and barred owl. Under the research methods used, the pellets identified by the dogs were always confirmed by later DNA lab analysis to actually be from northern spotted owls. Researchers had to abandon three of the territories, or “polygons,” as they’re called, due to dangers posed by illegal marijuana cultivation.

But they found that “spotted owl and barred owl detection probabilities were significantly higher for dog than vocalization surveys,” and that probability for detecting spotted owls grew as the number of probes grew. The “cumulative detection probability” of DNA-confirmed northern spotted owl pellets from dog surveys reached 87 percent after three sessions, versus 59 percent after six sessions for vocalization surveys. In a number of instances the sniffing dogs found confirmed evidence of the presence of northern spotted owls when the call-and-response, or vocalization, method did not.

The report concluded that, “detection dogs provide an effective noninvasive method for determining presence of both northern spotted owls and barred owls, independent of owl responsiveness. This method can provide a valuable complement to vocalization surveys, facilitating more effective northern spotted owl conservation actions in the face of the species’ continued decline.”

MORE INFO.: Northwest Interagency ESA (Endangered Species Act) Web site


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