Dogs follow foxes' trail to help protect endangered species

Tia sits to alert Alice Whitelaw to the presence of kit fox droppings. Tia’s reward is a toy and play time.
Tia sits to alert Alice Whitelaw to the presence of kit fox droppings. Tia’s reward is a toy and play time. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Tia, a 6-year-old German shepherd, is eager to get to work.

Her handler, Alice Whitelaw, sends the dog sniffing along a dirt road running between two power transmission lines that cut through the Topaz Solar Farm in the California Valley.

Soon, Tia’s highly trained nose leads her to what she is looking for — a pile of San Joaquin kit fox scat.

Tia’s discovery will become part of a growing 10-year database of information about the kit foxes that will reveal how they react to the commercial solar plant under construction. Biologists can learn a wealth of information about a wildlife species by studying its scat.

Four teams of dogs with the Working Dogs for Conservation Foundation of Three Forks, Mont., and their handlers will conduct kit fox scat surveys at the solar plant until mid-November.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how this population changes and hopefully increases,” said Dan Meade, principal scientist with the Paso Robles consulting firm Althouse and Meade, which is leading the annual kit fox-monitoring program.

The San Joaquin kit fox, about the size of a house cat, is one of several endangered species impacted by the two large solar plants being built north of the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

First Solar, which operates the Topaz plant, is required to take significant steps to ensure that construction of the sprawling plant does not harm the kit fox, which is listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. These consist of allowing the fox to easily travel through the plant as well as permanently protecting 17,000 acres as wildlife habitat.

Biologists are optimistic that these efforts will eventually result in an increase in kit fox numbers. In addition to setting aside habitat for the fox, First Solar has designed the plant to be kit fox friendly, Meade said.

Fences surrounding the solar panel arrays are equipped with mesh along the bottom that allows kit foxes to pass through but excludes coyotes, the fox’s main predator. This creates refuges from predation.

Scattered outside the arrays are kit fox refuge dens. These are lengths of plastic pipe with openings large enough to admit a fox but not a coyote. A kit fox could scurry into one of these dens if threatened or attacked by a coyote.

First Solar has already installed about 50 of these refuge dens. That number is likely to grow to about 200 when construction is complete, said Dawn Legg, the project’s construction liaison.

The solar plant as a kit fox haven will be complete when construction is finished. The hundreds of construction workers there now will be gone with only about a dozen operations and maintenance personnel on site at any given time.

Topaz will produce 550 megawatts of power when it is complete in 2015. The nearby California Valley Solar Ranch will produce 250 megawatts of power when construction is complete next year. It, too, has installed kit fox-friendly fences and has a separate program to protect the giant kangaroo rat, another endangered species.

Studying the scat

Back along the transmission line dirt road, Tia has found more scat, a pile of almond-sized droppings biologists call a latrine. The dog immediately sits and looks expectantly at Whitelaw.

“This is her reward,” Whitelaw says, holding up a rubber ball with a piece of rope attached.

Whitelaw throws Tia the toy, and for the next several moments the two play a game of tug-of-war. Other members of the team move in and collect the scat, recording its Global Positioning System location and other pertinent information.

The scat will be sent to the Smithsonian Institution for DNA analysis that will allow biologists to identify individual foxes, their sex and whether they are related to one another. Over time, this information will paint a detailed biological picture of the 17 kit foxes living in and around the 10,000-acre footprint of the solar plant.

Biologists already have three years of scat data on the foxes. Surveys will continue four years after construction is complete to determine whether fox numbers go up or down.

Conservation dogs like Tia are ideal for studying kit foxes, said Whitelaw, who is the group’s director of programs. Kit foxes are secretive and active mostly at night, making them difficult to observe.

The four teams — consisting of two German shepherds and two border collies — will be onsite at Topaz for 16 days — 12 work days and the others rest days for the dogs. Each team will cover from 1.5 to 3 square miles a day, said Deborah Woollett, the group’s director of conservation.

A nose for their work

Dogs are ideal for such conservation work. Their acute sense of smell allows them to cover large areas and detect even tiny amounts of biological material. This is because a dog has 220 million olfactory nerves spread through its nose, compared to the 5 million olfactory nerves in a human nose, Woollett said.

Each potential conservation dog is carefully screened for a variety of characteristics. The main one is toy obsession.

The brief period of play the dog receives with its handler after making a find is what keeps it motivated. Other characteristics are sociability, focus and an ability to work with a handler.

Only about 1 out of every 1,000 dogs screened actually becomes a working conservation dog, Woollett said. The dogs are also pampered with chiropractic and acupuncture care to keep them fit. This evidently pays off.

Other types of working dogs — bomb-sniffing and narcotics dogs, for example — often retire by the age of 7 or 8. Conservation dogs often work past their 10th birthdays, with the oldest retiring at age 13.

A dog is initially trained to detect one specific scent, and then others are added. For example, Tia started with kit fox scat as a puppy and has since added the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, an invasive snail in Hawaii and several invasive plants to her detection repertoire.

Dogs often work overseas. One dog even helped detect highly endangered mountain gorillas in Cameroon. 

“So they can go from endangered gorillas to kit foxes,” Woollett said.

Working Dogs for Conservation is a nonprofit group. In addition to collecting fees, the group also gets donations and grants. This is because the group specializes on conservation efforts such as protecting threatened and endangered species and controlling invasive species.