Search dogs led a pack of plant vigilantes up Mount Sentinel this week, scouring the hillside for a foreign invader.

The target: Dyer’s woad, a weed prioritized for eradication in Montana.

Missoula’s landmark hillside hosts the state’s largest infestation of the native Russian species and officials fear that if left unchecked, Dyer’s woad will choke out local plant populations.

Agencies first launched campaigns against the interloper decades ago, but human forces have been unable to eliminate Dyer’s woad – so far.

“There’s getting to be fewer plants,” said Jerry Marks, head of the Missoula County Weed District. “But they are getting harder to find.”

The answer: Release the hounds. Specifically, Seamus the border collie and Lily the yellow Lab, part of a crew from the Three Forks-based nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation.

“At their worst, dogs do equally as well as people,” Aimee Hurt, the group’s co-founder, said. “At their best, they can find 40 times as much.”

Sponsored in collaboration between the University of Montana and the Missoula weed district, the dogs will work five days a week through October, making them a common sight on the M Trail this summer. A private grant will help fund the work.

Should you see the weed-hunting hounds, remember this: No petting. Working Dogs adopts its canine crew members from animal shelters based on their obsessive energy, not their social skills.

“It’s usually the dogs at the shelter people tell you not to look at,” Dalite Guscio, who handles Seamus, said. “They are probably the dogs that would be put down.”

But such a temperament makes Seamus and Lily perfect for the tedious task of sniffing out weeds. Handlers use chew-toy incentives to motivate the animals, which are trained to root out Dyer’s woad and wait expectantly by the plant.

“They are crazy about their rewards,” Hurt said. “That’s like their paycheck.”

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Not only do Seamus and Lily find more plants than their human counterparts, but the dogs detect small specimens before they can flower and reproduce.

And the dogs’ scent database contains more than just unwanted flora. Working Dogs for Conservation uses search dogs to detect everything from heavy metal contamination to rare animal scat in places as far-flung as Botswana.

“We work all over the world, but we’re based here in Montana,” Hurt said. “It’s nice to work in our backyard.”

Local conservationists agree. Marilyn Marler, UM’s natural areas manager, said the dogs are vital to keeping Missoula’s Dyer’s woad population on lockdown.

“We really want to try and find every single one,” she said.

This week’s effort was the first of three public weed pulls planned for Mount Sentinel. Searchers meet every other Tuesday at the “M” trailhead and will target Dyer’s woad as well as houndstongue, infamous for its Velcro-like seeds.

Anybody can attend, but don’t expect to compete with the likes of Seamus and Lily.

“We’re a complementary tool,” Hurt said. “They are searching with their nose and we are searching with our eyes.”

Brett Berntsen is a University of Montana Journalism student and an intern at the Missoulian. He can be reached at 523-5210 or at brett.berntsen@missoulian.com.

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