It took about 20 seconds for Wicket, a specially trained dog, to find a zebra mussel hidden in a boat motor near the Coutts, Alta., international border March 20.
The dog’s skill showed to advantage Alberta’s new mandatory boat inspection law, soon to be enacted.
Three dogs are tasked with finding zebra and quagga mussels on watercraft before they enter provincial waters.
Wicket, Lily and Orbee, which were trained by Working Dogs for Conservation, will be sniffing watercraft at this particular station for the next eight weeks during “snowbird migration,” when Canadians who winter in the United States bring their boats home.
Inspection stations will be located at commercial vehicle weigh stations and main points of entry to the province.
“It is important to note that while the sniffer dogs can never replace people, they are proven to conduct inspections in a much more accurate and timely manner, so this will ensure that this great asset allows us to conduct the inspections by cutting down on the wait times for people that are having their boats inspected,” said Alberta environment minister Kyle Fawcett.
Jeff Austin, a peace officer trained in boat decontamination, said only five U.S. states and three provinces are free of zebra and quagga mussels.
British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, along with Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, have managed to keep them out.
The invasive species clog water infrastructure, destroy aquatic ecosystems and damage recreational opportunities in ponds, lakes and reservoirs.
There is no effective way to kill or remove them once they take hold, and they can multiply rapidly.
Bob Chrumka, chair of the Eastern Irrigation District, said southern Alberta’s farmers are well aware of the threat the mussels may pose.
The Alberta Irrigation Projects Association is helping fund seasonal watercraft inspectors and find and train Canadian dogs to do the job. The current pack of inspector dogs comes from Montana.
“Our whole conveyance system is at risk, from our reservoirs where the water first comes in, the recreational opportunities along those reservoirs … to the outlet structures out of the lake, which are inlet structures to our canals,” said Chrumka.
“It’s not a war we’re going to win. It’s an annual battle we have to wage because it’s not going to go away.”
The Alberta irrigation system in-cludes 7,000 kilometres of canals and another 4,000 km of pipelines, all of which could become infested should mussels escape initial notice.
Fawcett said the amended provincial fisheries act will give greater powers to enforcement officers to search boats and detain any that do not comply with decontamination procedures if that is deemed necessary.
Water heated to 60 C will kill mussels on surfaces, and Alberta has several mobile decontamination units that can provide it.
Austin, who did boat inspections last year, said most people are co-operative.
“Sometimes if the boat has too many internal compartments and we don’t feel we could reach all those areas … we may have to consider keeping the boat out of water for a period of 30 days,” he said.
That is long enough to kill the mussels, but inspectors will favour education over enforcement, he added.
Inspectors found several boats last summer that were carrying zebra mussels into the province. Austin himself discovered about 50 mussels on one craft being hauled from the Great Lakes.
Aimee Hunt, director of operations for Working Dogs for Conservation, said only one in 1,000 dogs is suitable for the mussel-sniffing task.
“They have to be really focused on what they’re doing, so it’s kind of a combination of toy drive and search drive and focus.”
Wicket, the dog who showed her skills last week, came from a Montana animal shelter and has worked for 10 years in seven countries and on 26 targets, said Hunt.