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Sniffing out invasive species: Alberta's canine conservationists are on the job

The fight against invasive species in Alberta is aided by a trio of four-legged friends.

Years into the province's Conservation K-9 Unit, hundreds of instances of mussel-foul boats have been found and dozens of bodies of water are monitored by dogs to make sure Alberta's waterways and parks are free from harmful species.

A nine-year-old Labrador named Hilo is one of the veterans of the program. The dog scans shorelines for invasive mussels, peruses parks for invasive weeds and, most recently, has started to sniff out wild boar scat across Alberta.

"To be a detection dog, it really is all about their drive," said Cindy Sawchuk, Hilo's handler and the Conservation K-9 Unit lead for Alberta Environment and Protected Areas.

"We say that less than one in 1,000 dogs actually has what it takes to make a detection dog because they're so focused and obsessed with toys, that we can really train them to do anything."

That training has brought the detection dogs to watercraft inspection sites and 47 bodies of water in 2022 alone.

Fifteen instances of invasive mussels have been found on boats this season – 181 have been detected in the 10 years since the program launched.

Invasive mussels are monitored so closely because they can do immense damage to Alberta's environment. It could also cost a lot of money if the species take hold.

The government estimates a mussel infestation could cause more than $75 million in damage to Alberta's water system.

"Once an invasive species has already been introduced then it's next to impossible to try to eliminate it. So the best thing that we can do is prevent it from arriving in the first place," said Sgt. Melanie Pachkowski, an Alberta Conservation Officer.

Officials say boaters play a big role in the prevention of invasive species. Cleaning, draining and drying watercraft before putting it back into the water is paramount.

"Sometimes the mussels could be the size of a grain of rice and the dogs are able to detect that along with the human inspectors, because we're getting a full picture of what the humans can see with their eyes and the dogs perceiving with their noses," said Sawchuk.

"It's really good partnership between the humans and the dogs." Top Stories

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