Ismay, a 3-year-old black Lab, searches the hull of a motorboat. Her nose is scouring every crevice of the port of the boat sitting on a trailer in a Missoula parking lot.
She reaches the rear and finds what she was looking for: a quagga mussel.
Ismay barks, telling her handler she found it. Then her handler grabs a rubber ball on a rope and plays fetch with Ismay.
“Ismay and her sister were trained as cadaver dogs, so they are used to barking when they find what they are looking for,” said Heidi Sedivy, the program manager.
Up next in the mussel hunt is Rosebud, Ismay’s sister. She searches with precision. She crawls under the boat, heading for the rear. She finds the mussel quickly. Rosebud sits and then looks at her handler.
Her handler then throws the rubber ball on a rope to her. Rosebud holds the ball in her mouth for a second, then drops it to go look for the mussel again.
“Rosebud has a real hunt drive,” Deb Tirmenstein, the dog handler, said.
Rosebud and Ismay are two working dogs – Working Dogs for Conservation in Montana, a program that trains dogs to sniff out quagga and zebra mussels, invasive species to the state's ecosystems.
Director of Center for Invasive Species Research at University of California Mark Hoddle said that zebra and quagga mussels have a long history of invading freshwater ecosystems. The organisms clog water intake structures, which greatly increases maintenance costs for water treatment and power plants, he said.
Managing zebra and quagga mussel invasions costs more than $500 million per year due to constant spreading, Hoddle said.
With Working Dogs for Conservation in Montana, the dogs help check boats that have a high risk of picking up the mussels and transporting them to Montana lakes.
The dogs complement their human inspectors rather than replace them, said Tirmenstein, who was a boat inspector a few summers ago.
But when these dogs go to work, it hardly looks like work. Inspecting boats can be tiring, Tirmenstein said, but with the reward of a game of fetch, Rosebud and Ismay are efficient workers.
That's why dogs who want to play fetch excel, Sedivy said.
Working Dogs for Conservation in Montana began with a partnership between Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks with the Flathead Basin Commission with the goal of preventing the spread of invasive species, like quagga and zebra mussels.
Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon and Idaho are the only states in the West still free of invasive quagga and zebra mussels, said Caryn Miske, executive director of the Flathead Basin Commission.
While this is the first year the dogs will be used to hunt the invasive species, it isn't an untested program.
California and Minnesota have programs that use dogs to find invasive species – programs that inspired the Flathead Basin Commission two years ago to run a similar project with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Working Dogs for Conservation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the province of Alberta, Miske said.
The dogs find mussels more quickly than a human can, and they're an unusual reminder to boat owners to search and clean their own boats, Miske said.
“It’s all for naught if the public doesn’t help,” Miske said.
Montana has 17 inspection stations located throughout the state.
Out of 35,000 boats inspected in Montana last year, just three had mussels affixed to their hulls, said Ron Aasheim, with the Communication and Education division of FWP.
“People think it’s a nuisance that we have to check their boats," Aasheim said. "We’re here to prevent a problem."