Colorado Parks and Wildlife turns to dogs to assist in law enforcement, wildlife management | VailDaily.com

Colorado Parks and Wildlife turns to dogs to assist in law enforcement, wildlife management

Sawyer D’Argonne
Summti Daily News
Wildlife Officer Ian Petkash with Samson, the newest member of CPW's K9 pilot program.
Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife

With more than 900,000 acres of land under its purview, it can be difficult for officers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to effectively cover all of their ground. So when a call comes in reporting poachers in the area or there’s a need to quickly locate an endangered species, it helps to have a good nose.

Over the last couple years Colorado Parks and Wildlife has introduced a trio of dogs to its ranks, part of an ongoing pilot program meant to determine if K9 units are effective in assisting in the department’s law enforcement efforts, education programs and even management of the state’s wildlife.

“In general our wildlife officers have huge amounts of land they have to cover,” said Jason Clay, a spokesperson for CPW. “Between management for hunting and fishing, wildlife watching, camping, trails and more, it’s hard for our officers to cover a lot of ground. We’re seeing if a tool like this can be an aid, and everything we’ve seen so far points to the fact that the dogs are a great asset to our officers.”

The pilot program began in late 2015 with one dog, a Dutch shepherd named Sci, working with district wildlife manager Philip Gurule near Colorado Springs. Cash, a black Labrador, joined the program in 2017 working with officer Brock McArdle near Fort Collins. Samson, a Belgian Malinois, became the program’s newest member earlier this year, partnered with officer Ian Petkash thanks to a donation to the program from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The dogs are formally trained and certified through the National Police Canine Association.

Tracking scents

According to Clay, the dogs have a number of applications with which they can potentially help wildlife officers, including in the realm of law enforcement. Part of the reason the dogs are so valuable is because of their abilities to track scents over broad areas, assisting officers in locating animals, evidence and suspects. CPW has already seen the program pay dividends in capturing criminals.

Late last year, CPW received a tip through Operation Game Thief regarding out-of-state hunters who illegally killed an elk on private property in Larimer County. Cash, who is trained to detect the scent of elk, was able to lead wildlife officers to one of the hunters, and eventually to the carcass on the ranch property.

“You can go over very large amounts of acreage looking for things, but just walking around with a naked eye, it’s going to be hard to spot,” said Clay. “But with the scent detection of the animals, Cash was able to find the carcass, which led to the hunters being prosecuted. Their capabilities with their scent far exceed what we can do on our own.”

In addition to locating suspects and evidence, the dogs’ ability to track scents on several different animals can come in handy in conservation efforts as well. Cash is able to detect and track two different endangered species in Colorado: The black-footed ferret and the boreal toad.

“Trying to detect the odors of those two species can be used to help in location efforts,” said Clay. “There have been black-footed ferrets that have been transplanted and released, because they’re a very endangered species, to seven or eight different sites. So if they want to go look after they’ve released these animals, the dogs can go and try and help detect them to see how they’re taking hold.”

Samson is also currently undergoing training to be used in experimental “canine hard releases” with dangerous animals such as bears and mountain lions. Clay said when CPW relocates a bear or mountain lion away from residential areas, they often use rubber buckshot to reinforce negative experiences with humans. Once Samson’s training is complete, he’ll begin assisting with the releases, presumably by safely barking and trying to scare the animal back into the wilderness to further reinforcing the negative association.

Finally, the dogs have served as ambassadors for parks and wildlife, visiting a number of schools across Colorado to help spread the word about our responsibilities regarding wildlife and the environment.

“Our officers are in schools all the time with the dogs, and they’re great ambassadors for the mission of conservation of parks and wildlife,” said Clay.

Because the program is still in its pilot stage, it’s funded primarily through public donations. Clay said it costs about $12,000 in the initial stages to obtain and train a new dog for the program, and as much as $20,000 over a 10-year working period that includes food, equipment, veterinary care and more. CPW currently has a donation page set up at GoFundMe.com/CPW-k9 to help raise funds for the program.

“They’re a tremendous tool, just as they’re a staple in other law enforcement agencies,” said Clay. “They add dimensions to our operations that we can’t do ourselves, and they can greatly enhance our conservation efforts.”