This summer amidst social distancing, racial justice protests, and fires, three dog and human teams ventured into the high elevation of backcountry Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevadas. Their goal? To find scat (poop) or other signs of life from cougars, fishers, Sierra Nevada red foxes, and coyotes.
Originally a part of Conservation Canines, Rogue Detection Teams branched off in April 2019 with 20 detection dogs all obsessed with toys. Over the past two summers, the organization has been working to help gather data on endangered species for the Yosemite Conservancy and UC Davis researchers.
Meet the Yosemite and High Sierra Detection Dogs
The teams included adventurous detection dogs Skye, Ranger, and Filson and their bounders (handlers), Suzie Marlow, Jake Lammi, and Jennifer Hartman. All three dogs were rescues either from shelters, owner surrender, or other organizations that couldn’t care for them anymore. Now, they’re all helping preserve Yosemite’s ecosystem and having a blast while doing it.
Filson is a tri-colored cattle dog mix who came from a different detection program in Southern California that couldn’t keep him. “Filson arrived in a cloth crate,” said Hartman, Filson’s bounder. “He’s pretty shy of new people at first, so kind of takes him a little bit to warm up but when he does he’s just the sweetest little nugget of love.”
Hartman, a field scientist and 13-year veteran of dog detection work, is one of the founding bounders of Rogue Detection Teams. She explained that the team came up with the new term “bounder” for their handlers to reinforce the “bound” connection between dog and human. “We feel it better encapsulates the relationship both working but as well as emotional that we create to make the method successful,” Hartman said.
Yosemite Animal Conservation Work
The project in Yosemite has been an ongoing push with Rogue Detection Teams, the Yosemite Conservancy, and UC Davis to learn more about the endangered mammals in the Sierras. With the dogs’ super sniffing skills, they’ve been able to find and sample scat from these illusive animals to learn all sorts of new information from geographic distribution to genetic diversity.
“What’s really cool about scat is that it’s like going to the doctor and pulling blood or getting a urine sample,” said Hartman.
The Sierra Nevada red fox, one of the species Hartman and Filson have been tracking, is one of the rarest mammals in North America with an estimated 20-30 individuals. Researchers have been trying to learn more about the foxes’ genetic diversity for over seven years. However, the foxes’ high elevation habitat and secretive nature make them extra challenging to study. Enter the detection dogs.
Filson is able to specifically identify red fox scat (along with dozens of other distinct smells) so researches can track more individuals, get more data, and cause less stress on the foxes than other techniques like trapping and collaring.
A Day in the Life of a Conservation Detection Dog
In the field, Hartman and Filson start their day at 4:45 am from their car home at 8,500-9,000 feet elevation. The team has breakfast and Hartman makes coffee, gets all the gear ready, and plans their route for the day depending on weather and wind conditions.
Around 5:30 am, they set out on the trail hiking up to 10,000 feet, where they’ll look for Sierra Nevada red fox scat. “We work offleash, and [Filson] has a GPS track logger in his harness too which shows his track versus my track,” Hartman said. “And the dog kind of weaves in front of us.”
The team will survey for around eight hours, covering 17-25 km each day, taking breaks for water, to cool down, or to put on protective gear (like Rex Specs) along the way.
At the end of surveying, Filson goes into his crate for a well-deserved nap and snack while Hartman processes all the samples they collected that day.
After processing, they’ll both have dinner, watch the sunset from the car, and head to sleep between 9-9:30 pm to start again the next morning.
UV Eye Protection at 10,000 Feet Elevation
While spending long hours above the tree line in Yosemite, Hartman started worrying about Filson’s eyes. “He started to get really raw red rimmed eyes and a lot of crusties,” said Hartman. That’s where Hartman brought in the Rex Specs.
According to the World Health Organization, UV rays intensify by approximately 3% every 1000 feet of elevation gain, meaning at 10,000 feet, UV rays can be 30% more intense than at sea level. With Rex Specs’ UV protection, blocking 99.9% of UVA and UVB rays, Hartman doesn’t worry as much about potential UV damage to Filson’s eyes so the team stays more relaxed.
“I know that I’m protecting my coworker and so I can feel a lot better and happier, care-free about the project,” Hartman said.
Words by Johanna Flashman