Dogs Used to Sniff Out Invasive Mustard on Mount Sentinel

August 14, 2014

MISSOULA – Dyer’s woad is an invasive plant found in five Montana locations. It infests vast tracts of land in Idaho and Utah, and Montana land managers work hard at early detection and rapid response to prevent widespread infestations here.

“We don’t want this to become the next spotted knapweed,” said Marilyn Marler, University of Montana natural areas specialist.

One of the Montana infestations is on UM’s Mount Sentinel, and the University has worked to eradicate the weedy mustard for almost two decades.

“There are few enough plants on Mount Sentinel that our control efforts are limited by our ability to find the darn things,” Marler said. “They are spread out, and they hide in and among shrubs on the hillside.”

That’s where Working Dogs for Conservation comes in. Based in Montana and founded in 2000 by four biologists, this nonprofit organization selects, trains and partners with high-energy dogs – many rescued from shelters – to seek targets of high conservation value. These include feces of rare wildlife, imperiled plants and invasive insects. The dyer’s woad project is in its fourth year on Mount Sentinel.

In 2011 and 2012, 500 plants were found, Marler said. That decreased to 113 plants last year and so far only 19 plants this summer.

“It’s working really well,” Marler said. “For several years, we ran the dog-handler teams as a comparison to a person searching by themselves. It turned out that the person without a search dog was consistently missing about 40 percent of the plants. So now we just use the dogs because they are much more accurate.”

UM will continue the program until dyer’s woad is eradicated from the mountain in compliance with Montana Dyer’s Woad Management Plan, which is an interagency effort to prevent the spread of the plant in Montana. Marler said it takes eight weed-free years to be declared eradicated. “We are getting closer every year,” said Marler.

The Mount Sentinel work is funded by the Missoula County Weed District, the City of Missoula, the Montana Noxious Weed Trust Fund, UM and the Pleaides Foundation of Missoula. To support weed management and native plant restoration on Mount Sentinel, donations of any amount can be sent to UM Natural Areas Restoration, UM Foundation, Brantly Hall, University of Montana, Missoula MT 59812.

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Contact: Marilyn Marler, UM natural areas specialist, 406-544-7189,; Ngaio Richards, Working Dogs for Conservation, 406-529-0384,