How long would it take you to locate a rare toad in the mountains of Colorado? How about spotting a federally endangered black-footed ferret hiding underground in one of Colorado’s many prairie dog towns? Both species are extremely rare and elusive, and are always on the radar of Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists and wildlife officers. To get a leg-up on this challenge, CPW launched a K9 pilot program, enlisting a pair of highly trained working dogs who use their natural abilities to find what the human eye often cannot see.
Enter K9 CASH
Among the pair is K9 Cash, an enthusiastic black Labrador who was donated to Colorado Parks and Wildlife by Bear Point Kennels. K9 Cash comes from a long line of hunting dogs whose genetics combine to produce a powerful nose and strong natural hunting instincts, making a perfect prospect for CPW‘s program. But, while raw talent is an essential ingredient for a successful working dog, Cash’s true potential was only realized through extensive training efforts. To unlock Cash’s abilities, District Wildlife Manager Brock McArdle, Cash’s handler, spent hours working with trainers to mold K9 Cash. This laborious and expensive process was made possible by a series of generous Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) grants, essential funding that provided the initial training and equipment needed to turn a puppy into an invaluable working dog.
In technical terms, K9 Cash is described as a single purpose dog, a label that seems to under-sell the dynamic role Cash plays for CPW. As a single purpose dog, K9 Cash specializes in three types of work:
- Aiding wildlife officers in gaining public compliance with wildlife laws.
In this capacity, K9 Cash can be used to locate important evidence, such as animal hair or bullet casings, that can be valuable in wildlife poaching cases.
- Participating in field surveys in an effort to locate wildlife species of conservation concern.
K9 Cash’s ability to smell what the human eye often cannot see increases success and efficiency of field work and allows critical biological data to be collected in the field.
- Providing educational programs to members of the public to increase awareness of natural resources.
K9 Cash is a magnet for engaging audiences in the importance of conservation. His friendly disposition makes him a favorite in classrooms, at clubs, and at outdoor events and festivals. His appearance may be the bait, but it is his story and demonstrations of his actions that help spread the conservation message.
Helping Protect Some of Colorado’s Rarest Animals
Brock and K9 Cash team up to help locate two of Colorado’s most endangered species, the black-footed ferret and the boreal toad. CPW’s Commitment to Recovery & Conservation Plans for the two species include monitoring efforts that are greatly aided by K9 Cash’s keen sense of smell. Black-footed ferrets are so rare that two times in recent history, they were thought to be extinct. Believed to be absent from Colorado since the early 1950s, the ferrets are back as a result of diligent reintroduction efforts. The eight ferrets that were discovered in Wyoming in the early 1980s were relocated to breeding facilities and today, a delicate population of around 600 ferrets exists between captive and wild relocation sites. Cash uses his skills to locate ferrets out in the wild, allowing CPW’s team to monitor and conduct a critical conservation effort.
The boreal toad, Colorado’s only alpine toad species, is found in montane habitats between 8,000 and 12,000 feet in the Southern Rocky Mountains. This once widespread and common toad is now extremely scarce, experiencing a rapid decline in numbers caused primarily by a skin fungus that has attacked many amphibian species worldwide. This decline resulted in Colorado listing the boreal toad as a state endangered species in 1993 and requiring CPW to enact a management and recovery strategy to reverse the population trends. Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility (NASRF) has played a critical role in efforts to restore boreal toads to Colorado ecosystems. The NASRF has raised more than 130,000 tadpoles, toadlets and adult toads, which CPW biologists have translocated to help reestablish boreal toads in their historical habitat. Again, K9 Cash plays a critical role in locating this species in the wild. K9 Cash turns the task of finding a needle in a haystack into quick work, often reducing search time from days and hours to minutes. Using his strong sense of smell, K9 Cash is able to locate what the eye often cannot see, increasing the efficiency of field surveys by greatly reducing the number of human participants.
As with any good hunting dog, regular training is required for K9 Cash to perform at his best. During a recent training effort, Brock and K9 Cash brushed up on their black-footed ferret skills. The training exercise started with Brock placing bedding materials from a breeding facility deep in a prairie dog burrow. The simulation was designed to test K9 Cash’s ability to locate the presence of an unseen ferret in a prairie dog town.
After placing the scent, Brock tossed a handful of grass into the air to determine wind direction and the best approach for working the dog. A quick trip to the car to retrieve K9 Cash and the search for the invisible ferret was underway. Working with the wind and using only his sense of smell, K9 Cash locked onto the scent. Head held high and sweeping back and forth, K9 Cash trailed the scent and was standing with his nose at the correct burrow in a matter of minutes. Brock’s pride in his partner’s performance was clear. K9 Cash had made child’s play of the day’s simulations, proof of the consistent and dedicated training effort of CPW’s top dogs.
Help Support valuable CPW K9 Program
The value of CPW’s K9 pilot program is clear, but tight state operating budgets are providing limited financial support for the program. To date, crucial Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) grants, various outside sportsmen groups and private individuals have generously donated funds to cover training, equipment and other items. And as CPW’s K9 program continues to prove itself as a valuable asset to wildlife management, additional funding sources and more K9s may become available; however, in the meantime, a GoFundMe account has been set up to help offset the future costs of this unique wildlife management tool. Members of the public can partner with this program and join the campaign at www.gofundme.com/cpw-k9.
Written by Doug Skinner. Skinner is an editor for Colorado Outdoors Online and is a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Video by Jerry Neal. Neal is an editor of Colorado Outdoors online and works as a public information specialist at CPW’s Denver Headquarters.