When you walk your dog in the park, you know that you have to stop at every tree. Dogs lift their legs and mark their territory. Others study those spots like they’re Facebook pages.
Wolves act in a similar way. A Montana researcher is using that little tidbit to develop what he hopes will be the answer to a big question in the rural Northwest: how do you stop wolves from attacking livestock?
This summer, University of Montana researcher Dave Ausband and a few hired hands built a fence in the wilds of central Idaho. It’s not made of wooden posts and barbed wire. It’s a chemical fence, made of wolf pee and poop.
Ausband stores some of the tricks of his trade in a little freezer in his office in Missoula.
Dave Ausband: “So the crew would have Ziploc baggies of scats that they would drop. Every few hundred meters they would drop those. And they also have these bottles of wolf urine here.”
Doug Nadvornick: “Pretty dark stuff there.”
Dave Ausband: “Yeah. They spray this in a given amount every few hundred meters.”
And it’s not just dump a little here, dump a little there. Ausband tries to mimic how a real wolf would pee.
Dave Ausband: “On a prominent object at 12 inches high, you dump three milliliters, which is three squirts, so it’s pretty specific.
Then he reaches into a plastic bag and pulls out a surprise.
Dave Ausband: “I hope you don’t get sick here. Severed wolf paws.’
That’s right: severed wolf paws. He uses them to scratch in the dirt to make the scene look and smell realistic.
Dave Ausband: “Between the toes here are where they have these interdigital pads that secrete pheromones and all kinds of neat stuff that they use to talk to each other without words.”
Ausband hopes by laying down smells that mean something to wolves, the animals will recognize and honor the boundaries set by other wolves.
He says his biofence study is new for wolves in the Northwest. But there’s a researcher who’s using it with wild dogs in the African nation of Botswana. I reached Dr. Peter Apps, half a world away, on Skype.
Peter Apps: “This is a very, very new approach to managing animal behavior.”
Apps says he’s using biofences to keep wild dogs from wandering into places where they might be attacked. He’s had some success.
But he has a big problem, one that he shares with Ausband back in Montana. There just isn’t enough scat and urine available to make new biofences. Apps is trying to figure out which chemicals the animals pay attention to so he can make them in a lab.
Peter Apps: “The smells are made up of hundreds of thousands of different chemical compounds, so it’s quite a painstaking process. But, for sure, there’s a message in those smells somewhere and, if we stick with it, we will find it.”
Apps’ work is funded by the foundation created by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame. Ausband’s research is also funded privately.
Ralph Maughan from Pocatello, Idaho is president of the Wolf Recovery Foundation. He hopes the data will help accomplish one of the foundation’s goals.
Ralph Maughan: “Which is to promote non-intrusive ways of finding out about wolves and also modifying their behavior so that there’ll be less conflict between wolves and livestock.”
Maughan says he’s encouraged by Ausband’s early results. Those experiments in the woods show that the wolves are not crossing those chemical boundaries. Next year he hopes to conduct tests closer to livestock. But he concedes it might be a hard sell with ranchers.
Dave Ausband: “I don’t want to go to a bunch of producers and say ‘hey, here’s this university egghead with this pretty ridiculous notion that you can push wolves around with scat and urine. Let me try it on your ranch.’”
Ausband will publish his results later this year and then look for more money to continue his experiments next year.