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Authors: Allison Locatell and Brent McDaniel

Allison and Moxie on site at an SWCA client’s wind farm.Imagine having a coworker who is innately talented at a particular task, finishes in a fraction of the time it would take you, and does it all with an unwavering determination and endless enthusiasm. That’s Moxie, a 3-year-old springer spaniel who sniffs out bird and bat fatalities on wind farms. Moxie loves her job and she’s very good at it.

A dog’s sense of smell is estimated to be 10,000 to 100,000 times better than a human’s, meaning a dog’s nose knows better how to find by smell what human eyes often miss. Since the 1990s, dogs have been making their way into environmental field work, detecting things like underground oil contamination, and endangered and invasive species of plants and animals.

Human-led field surveys for particular species can be tedious and expensive, sometimes coming up empty-handed altogether. With their powerful noses able to locate odors over large distances, dogs are much better suited to locating species in difficult survey conditions. Allison Locatell, a staff biologist in SWCA’s Arlington, Texas office, was convinced there was a way around our natural limitations.

Moxie wears a GPS collar to record her search path at each turbine, allowing Allison to monitor survey coverage in real-time.She found what she was looking for at the 2017 Wildlife Society Conference in Reno, Nevada, during a presentation of results from an avian and bat fatality monitoring study that used detection dogs. Allison had more than seven years of dog training experience in her personal life, training dogs for obedience competitions, Canine Good Citizen evaluations, therapy work, and service work. She was instantly intrigued and began collaborating with the biologists who gave the presentation, as well as several groups of dog trainers, to learn all she could about environmental detection dogs. Six months later, on her first avian and bat fatality monitoring survey for SWCA, she saw first-hand why dogs would be better in challenging conditions.

“As the surveyor, I was supposed to visually find fatalities as small as a mouse in a field of chest-high vegetation where I couldn’t even see my own feet,” Allison said. ”Knowing there was a better solution and wanting the best results for our clients, I asked others at SWCA about using dogs. When I was given the go-ahead to investigate it further, I ran with it.” 

“This was a great example of a creative solution we strive to find for our clients,” said Josh Perry, Director of SWCA’s Arlington office, about Allison’s suggestion to use dogs in field studies. “Taking on a project like this speaks volumes to the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of so many of SWCA’s technical staff.”

Goggles protect Moxie’s eyes from irritants and impacts when moving quickly through dense vegetation. Play time with a sheepskin toy is her reward after each find.Allison began detection training in 2018 and adopted Moxie in 2020. While working with Moxie and developing her own training and fieldwork strategy, Allison was collaborating with other SWCA offices to design a searcher efficiency trial that gained the attention of two SWCA clients. In May 2021, the clients each allowed SWCA to use one of their wind farms as test sites to compare human surveyor and canine searcher efficiency. 

The trials were held within a single season in three vegetation levels commonly found on wind farms. Trial Site #1 had bare ground agricultural fields, and Trial Site #2 had medium coverage (ankle height vegetation) and difficult coverage (knee height). Surveys for bat and quail carcasses compared the canine-handler team and a human surveyor on the same days, each searching for the same sample carcasses. To avoid the possibility of scent contamination, another SWCA teammate walked to randomly generated points within each turbine plot and tossed the carcass 10-15 feet. Each turbine was searched by the canine-handler team first, then by the human so the canine would not follow a teammate’s scent to each carcass.

The canine-handler team performed 73% better than the human surveyor on Site #1 and 147% better on Site #2 with more difficult vegetation cover. Not only did the canine-handler team find more carcasses, but they also finished an average of 10-16 minutes faster per turbine. The canine-handler team performed 73% better than the human surveyor on Site #1 and 147% better on Site #2 with more difficult vegetation cover. Not only did the canine-handler team find more carcasses, but they also finished an average of 10-16 minutes faster per turbine.The end results of the trials were exactly what Allison and SWCA had expected: Moxie greatly outperformed the human surveyor. The canine-handler team performed 73% better than the human surveyor on Site #1 and 147% better on Site #2 with more difficult vegetation cover. Not only did the canine-handler team find more carcasses, but they also finished an average of 10-16 minutes faster per turbine, even accounting for playtime with Moxie’s favorite toy after each find. Toy time is key for Moxie—it’s her reward for successful fatality detection. High energy and other qualities are important in a detection dog, but a toy obsession is the most necessary characteristic, Allison said. That obsession for the reward is why Moxie is willing to work so hard. ​​​​​​

Since the trials were performed on active wind farms, finding real-world bird and bat fatalities was a known possibility. Both survey teams found incidental fatalities in addition to the sample carcasses. However, the most challenging and impressive of these finds were made only by Moxie, who was able to find a fatality that was almost completely buried by a previous ant infestation as well as a piece of bat wing and tuft of fur smaller than a pinky finger.

Moxie’s most difficult finds included a previously buried bird carcass and small pieces of bat wing.Allison’s trials clearly demonstrated significant advantages of canine-handler survey teams over their human counterparts, echoing other studies and papers published in recent years. Because of the efficiency and efficacy improvements, a canine-handler team also provides a cost-effective solution for clients.

Searching by smell rather than sight alone allows Moxie (blue) to cover the same area more quickly than the human surveyor’s transect paths (yellow) evenly spaced across the survey plot. Moxie completed this search 20 minutes faster than the human surveyor.

“SWCA has been using canine-searcher teams very effectively on our projects in Hawaii, where they are up to six times more efficient than humans alone in difficult-to-search volcanic environments,” said Ann Widmer, an ecologist in SWCA’s Denver office.

“However, SWCA hasn’t had this capability in the mainland U.S. until now. Many of our wind energy clients are interested in preserving existing land uses beneath the turbines, but it is sometimes necessary to mow the vegetation grown for crops or grown to support livestock in order to make the area searchable by humans. With a well-trained dog on the team, mowing may not be necessary. Likewise, many of our clients are required to monitor large areas for eagle fatalities. Dogs are perfect for this task—covering more area in less time and locating targets with an exceptionally high degree of precision. We’re continually identifying new applications where dogs may be a real asset.”

After a long day of searching, Moxie relaxes with a belly rub and one of her favorite toys.Avian and bat fatality monitoring isn’t the only type of environmental survey where detection dogs could be of use to SWCA’s clients. Allison says environmental detection canine teams have been conducting surveys all over the world to prevent the spread of invasive species and to protect threatened and endangered species like the Wyoming toad, giant garter snake, black-footed ferret, ornate box turtles, Pacific pocket mouse, and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nests.

Elsewhere in the U.S., dogs have been used to find Oregon silverspot butterfly larvae that are smaller than a grain of rice and haven’t been detected in the last 40 years of human-conducted surveys. They have also recently been used to find floating scat samples (which only float for a short period of time) of declining Southern resident orca whale populations by sniffing from the bow of a boat.

Detection dogs are already making a difference in environmental research and conservation in amazing and unexpected ways. With support from SWCA, Allison is planning additional canine studies, using sound science to find creative solutions to better protect threatened and endangered species, eradicate invasive species, and mitigate negative impacts to clients’ projects and bottom line.

Click to watch our bonus video to see Moxie and Allison in action!

Read more from The Wire, Vol. 22, No. 1 below: