Mussel-sniffing dog helps local Game and Fish conduct invasive species inspections

Barnacle, a mussel-sniffing black lab, inspects a boat with owner/trainer/handler Debi DeShon at the Evanston Port of Entry on Sunday, July 26. (HERALD PHOTO/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — Last week was a busy one at the watercraft inspection station at the Evanston Port of Entry, as more than 2,000 boats, kayaks, canoes and assorted watercraft were inspected by technicians with the Wyoming Game and Fish Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) prevention team. For the first time at any Wyoming AIS inspection station, those human technicians were joined for several days by a mussel-sniffing dog.

Barnacle, a 5-year-old black lab, spent his days sniffing out mussels and standing water in watercraft deemed to be at high risk for zebra and/or quagga mussels — No. 1 on the WGFD most unwanted species list. Barnacle came to Evanston with owner/trainer/handler Debi DeShon for a five-day visit en route back home to California after spending five weeks in Texas inspecting watercraft.

DeShon is the co-owner of Mussel Dogs and Dogs With Jobs, based in Oakdale, California, and specializing in detection canines. She said the canine detection business started in the mid-1990s, but for the past decade part of that detection training and work has included invasive mussel species. Because of the level of concern about invasive mussel species, it took two years to get a permit and permission to acquire the mussels to even begin training the dogs to sniff them out.

Using primarily 1- to 3-year-old rescues, DeShon said it takes about six weeks to train the dogs. Selecting dogs for the program isn’t necessarily a matter of breed, but rather of personality. She said “ball crazy” dogs are the best, which ends up including a lot of Labradors.

With 10 mussel-sniffing dogs on the team, DeShon said she and her team of eight human handlers primarily engage in weekend work in California, but at times travel to other states with the hard-working canines to help game and fish departments in what has become an all-out battle against invasive species in waterways.

Jessica Warner, WGFD AIS leader in Evanston, said DeShon and Barnacle had proven their worth over the weekend, with Barnacle getting well over a dozen “hits” over the weekend. Warner said she was particularly impressed with the dog’s ability to find standing water inside boat compartments, which is a huge concern. “He’s done amazingly well with that,” said Warner.

Although the AIS stations look for all types of invasive species, including mussels, snails, clams, plants and more, the zebra and/or quagga mussels are of particular concern. Wyoming is one of only five states where the mussels have not yet been identified. Native to the Black and Caspian Sea areas of Eurasia, the mussels made their way to the Great Lakes in the 1980s and then spread rapidly throughout the eastern United States. In 2007, quagga mussels were identified in Nevada’s Lake Mead and have since been identified in waterways throughout the western part of the country.

The mussels are extremely problematic in a number of ways, including that they “reproduce exponentially,” said Warner. One female can produce up to one million offspring in a single year. The tiny mussels are filter feeders, meaning they feed on algae in waterways, often resulting in what at first appears to be very clean water. Warner said sometimes people think water “so clear you can see through” is a sign it’s clean and healthy; however, it can mean the opposite.

If a body of water has been depleted of algae because of filter feeder invasive species, it can mean catastrophe for a food chain. Disruptions of algae can interfere with other species that feed on them and the effects then carry up the food chain, resulting in malnourished and unhealthy fish. The absence of healthy algae can also result in the dangerous blue-green algae blooms in waterways and even the presence of botulism, which can then cause the die-off of sea birds.

In addition to the impacts on ecosystems and food chains, the mussels also infiltrate water pipelines and systems, resulting in problems in hydroelectric dams, irrigation pipes and more. Warner said identifying the mussels in any of Wyoming’s waterways would be very bad news from an economic standpoint, costing taxpayers up to millions of dollars to clean dams and landowners money to clean irrigation pipes. The mussels can also quite literally be a pain for people if present on beaches, riverbanks, or in shallow water because they’re sharp and can cut open bare feet.

In addition, the mussels can wreak havoc on boats, costing boat owners money to repair and/or replace damaged areas and equipment. The presence of standing water in watercraft is a concern, said Warner, because microscopic mussel larvae can be alive and present in such water. If not for the inspections detecting the water, the larvae could be transported into other waterways the next time that boat or craft launches.

Inspections include examination of a craft’s hull, motor, ballast tanks, anchors, sea strainers and more, and ensuring there is no residual water anywhere in the boat and that all bilge plugs are out. For non-motorized craft, like kayaks and canoes, the inspection includes ensuring there is no mud remaining on the craft. Warner said non-motorized craft are often launched by being dragged through mud and debris and invasive species can remain living in that mud for an extended period of time after being removed from the water.

Craft owners are questioned about where the craft was last used to determine if there is a high risk for mussels. For example, boats used in Lake Powell or Lake Mead would be of greater risk and inspected more carefully. Technicians also have access to a national database to look up information on boats, which is particularly useful if, for example, the watercraft has been rented and the person questioned has no idea where it has been used in the past several weeks.

Over the most recent weekend, those more intense inspections included the use of Barnacle, circling the boats to sniff out the creatures and/or water. In the case that an invasive species is found, the watercraft are decontaminated on site using very hot high-pressure water to kill and remove the invaders. Warner said in Wyoming the inspections and decontaminations when needed are free of charge, although other states do charge a fee for those services.

After each inspection, individuals are provided with a receipt documenting the inspection and containing additional information on the AIS program, and each craft is marked with a seal as proof of inspection. Warner said all watercraft entering the state are required to stop for an inspection, including if Wyoming residents take their crafts into a different state to recreate. Wyoming residents are also, however, required to have their watercraft inspected even if they’re not leaving the state and will just be using Wyoming waters. All watercraft used in Wyoming waterways, with some limited exceptions, are also required to purchase and display an AIS decal, the funds from which go to funding the AIS programs in the state.

Warner said the Evanston inspection station is the busiest one in the state, conducting more than 13,000 inspections in 2019. Technicians are on-hand from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Sunday, from mid-March to mid-October. She said when the program first began inspections a decade ago, there was resistance from some watercraft owners who were not thrilled about having their boats inspected. Now, however, she said people are generally understanding and appreciative of the work being conducted. “We’ve done a lot of outreach and education and that’s helping with cooperation and public opinion,” said Warner.

For anyone interested in getting more information on the AIS program, inspections, threats and more, the public can visit the website at wgfd.wyo.gov/AIS or give Warner a call directly at (307) 677-1238.

Otherwise, Warner encouraged anyone using Wyoming waterways to please remember to help stop the spread by following the three easy steps of clean, drain and dry. Clean all mud, plants and debris; and drain all water from all areas and dry boat well before using in any other body of water.

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