IN Alberta, the fight to stop a zebra mussels invasion has gone to the dogs.
Detection dogs, that is.
Dogs specially trained to identify zebra and quagga mussels were used in a pilot program Aug. 2-9 in Alberta at its U.S. border in co-operation between the Alberta and Montana governments. Dogs have been working on the Montana side since May.
The dogs were from the Montana-based Working Dogs for Conservation and are handled by dog handlers who are also biologists. Four dogs were trained in California, with joint funding from the Alberta and Montana governments, to detect zebra and quagga mussels using their acute sense of smell. The dogs sniff-searched watercraft and trailers at special inspection locations at various border crossings.
An invasive species originally native to Russia, zebra mussels attach themselves in clusters to boats and docks, can clog pipes, create sharp hazards on rocky areas of beaches and can harm aquatic ecosystems by consuming nutrients needed by native species of plants and animals. They spread when they are attached to watercraft or in water at the bottom of boats.
Alberta officials said 2,200 watercraft were inspected during the pilot project. Live zebra mussels were found on one watercraft, making the pilot program an instant success. Alberta doesn't have zebra mussels and provincial officials want to keep it that way.
"We're happy with the dogs and I've talked to my department, we might even get our own... It's amazing to see how small the larvae really are but those dogs sniffed them out, no problem," said Robin Campbell, Alberta's minister of environment and sustainable resource development.
"I'm being told it's about $3,000 a year to maintain a dog (after training). I suggest the damages this could do to our agricultural industry and municipalities as far as water and sewage treatment plants, this would be a very small investment to move forward with our own patrol."
Manitobans are howling for a solution as zebra mussels have already invaded Lake Winnipeg. Manitoba's focus, with its Don't Move a Mussel public education program launched earlier this week by Conservation Minister Gord Mcintosh, is controlling the spread of the pesky mollusks.
An attempt was made last spring to eradicate zebra mussels -- four Lake Winnipeg ports were treated with liquid potash. But now larvae have been found outside of those ports.
A major problem with controlling and killing new zebra mussels is that the larvae, called veligers, are hard to see with the human eye and are mobile.
That's where the dogs come in.
There's no comparison between a human visual search and a canine scent search, said Pete Coppolillo, the Working Dogs for Conservation executive director based in Three Forks, Mont.
"Even the best inspection by a human could miss veligers if they're in the water or in the carpet of a boat. The dogs do a great job. They find pretty much anything we ask them to," Coppolillo said, noting the dogs are high-energy with an obsessive play drive. They are rewarded for searches by getting to play with a favourite toy.
"Dogs, because they search with their noses, they're not distracted by visual clutter," Coppolillo said. "They can know what's inside cracks and unexposed spaces, even without physically getting into those spaces. That just makes them much more efficient, more effective and sensitive. They can detect scents in the parts per billion."
Manitoba officials wouldn't confirm whether they're ready to release the hounds, as Alberta did.
"We're certainly aware of the project. As this is still a pilot project, we are interested in the findings. This will help us determine if this is something that would work as part of our prevention and containment efforts in Manitoba," Laureen Janusz, a biologist with Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, said in an email response.
Two detection dogs are working in Minnesota.