This fall there will be some new faces at the Hawaii Department of Agriculture - furry aces. The Hawaii Detector Dog Program is returning, thanks to restored funding from the state Legislature and matching federal funds.
Alongside their human handlers, these four-legged inspectors will screen incoming cargo and luggage on Oahu to help prevent plant and animal pests from becoming established in Hawaii.
Hawaii's detector dogs will be sniffing for brown tree snakes that may have stowed away in shipments from Guam, but they will also inspect other cargo arriving at Honolulu International Airport and Oahu military bases, including mail and parcel shipments.
A beagle works with a U.S Customs and Border Protection agent at an airport. The state Department of Agriculture has dogs doing similar work in Hawaii.
JAMES TOURTELLOTTE photo
The 20-year-old program was cut in 2009 due to a lack of funds. Prior to the program's demise, busy beagles and handlers bagged seven snakes in a 14- to 15-year period. During inspection blitzes at Kahului Airport, dogs uncovered more than 1,000 instances of undeclared produce and vegetation, including a shipment of persimmons infested with mealybugs not known to be in Hawaii. The state's airport dogs also serve as ambassadors for the Agriculture Department, letting passengers know with a friendly wag that their luggage was inspected behind the scenes as well as in the baggage claim area.
The new inspectors will be in good company. Man's best friend, long called upon for helping humans in search and rescue, hunting, and police work, now is lending a nose on a variety of conservation fronts.
Kristine Lesperance of Oahu Detection Dog Services and her lab-mix named Dexter have been working hard to save native Hawaiian tree snails, or Achatinella, in the Waianae Mountains. Dexter sniffs out invasive animals that prey on native tree snails: the cannibalistic rosy wolf snail and Jackson's chameleon. Dexter can distinguish between a rosy wolf snail, a giant African snail and native snails by scent. When he finds one, he sits down and waits for his reward. He can track chameleons by the smell of their scat, a definite advantage for finding these cryptic creatures.
Lesperance says dogs are great for determining the presence or absence of an animal across large areas. Depending on the species the dog is searching for and how odoriferous it is, it may take awhile. With the rosy wolf snail, Dexter doesn't cue into the scent until he's -inch to 2 inches from the snail, taking up to 30 minutes to find one; he does better with Jackson's chameleon scat, finding it from several feet away, but, when working as a search-and-rescue dog, Dexter can smell a person a quarter mile away.
In Montana, dogs are sniffing out invasive plants in the field, outperforming their human counterparts at finding scattered small plants. Elsewhere, dogs are finding bees, pythons, rare plants, cane toads, tortoises, termites and even root fungus. "I think we could use dogs to find pretty much anything that has a scent," Lesperance says, adding that further work will help determine how dogs can be most effective in different conservation scenarios.
Although dogs have been trained to help in conservation for 10 to 15 years, "we're really just seeing the beginning," says Lesperance.
Our new four-legged recruits will help close gaps in agricultural inspection, but many opportunities exist for canine eco-detection services. Who knows whose nose will be hard at work protecting Hawaii?
* Lissa Fox Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. Kia'i Moku, "Guarding the Island," is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island's environment, economy and quality of life.