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Seamus is a professional hunting dog with immense focus and energy, but the 3-year-old border collie doesn't track wild animals.

Seamus hunts Dyer's woad, an invasive weed found on Mount Sentinel.

Eradication of Dyer's woad is an effort that's been ongoing for 14 years on Mount Sentinel. There are only seven spots in Montana where the noxious weed is found and two spots where it's abundant: Lima and Missoula's beloved mountainside.

Dyer's woad is one of seven noxious weeds on Mount Sentinel, said Marilyn Marler, the University of Montana's natural area specialist. There's a different control method for each one.

Eradication of Dyer's woad in Montana has been deemed possible - unlike knapweed, for example, which is only controlled. Biologists and plant professionals with UM, Montana State University, extension agencies, Missoula Parks and Recreation and the Clark Fork chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society have made great strides toward eliminating the weed from Mount Sentinel by pulling and spraying.

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A decade ago, there were hundreds of Dyer's woad on Mount Sentinel, but now there are so few that they're hard to detect. But every last plant matters because there are up to 400 seeds in one Dyer's woad plant, and the seeds can spread.

"It looks like every other plant on the hill," said Dalit Guscio, a conservation dog handler.

Enter Seamus, with his intense sense of smell and hard work ethic.

MSU has contracted with Working Dogs for Conservation, a Bozeman-based business that uses dogs to track noxious weeds and conduct animal population counts. Working Dogs for Conservation, which started in 2000, has tracked Chinese clover in Iowa, brown tree snakes in Guam, an invasive snail in Hawaii and the scat of moon bears in China.

The company employs four full-time workers, all of whom are conservation biologists and half of whom have doctorate degrees. Those biologists work with nine dogs, all rescued from local shelters.

Working Dogs for Conservation looks for the most hyper, toy-crazy dogs it can find - traits that don't necessarily make them the best family pets, said executive director Megan Parker.

Working Dogs for Conservation tests 1,000 to 2,000 dogs before finding one that can accomplish the job. Handlers live with the dogs, and each tracking dog receives a minimum of nine weeks of training before its first assignment.

The dogs easily pick up scents. Adopted several months ago, Seamus is trained to find only Dyer's woad so far. But Parker's dog Pepin, a Belgian malinois, has been in the program for five years and can track six scents: snow leopard, lynx, grizzly bear, black bear, wolverine and Dyer's woad.

Most of the dogs' work is scat detection, with an eye to establishing population estimates on endangered species, Parker said.

Each dog has its own reward.

Pepin loves to play tug of war. Seamus' driving force is a plastic Planet Dog toy.

The dog keeps his nose close to the ground until it picks up the scent, flashing an intense stare at the handler upon finding the treasure and lying down next to the weed.

Then the border collie is rewarded with its dog toy. Seamus can track the weed's scent more accurately than the eye can find the plant itself, especially when the weed's yellow flower has not yet blossomed or the plant is only an inch high and shrouded by other native shrubs.

"I feel we're so close to getting rid of the thing," Marler said.

Working Dogs for Conservation will be at work on Mount Sentinel in the wee hours of the morning five days a week through October. However, another Dyer's woad weed pull is scheduled for Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the "M" trail. Everyone is welcome, Marler said, because every little bit helps.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-2560 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

 

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