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'She loves to show off': North Dakota fetches help of trained dog to sniff out zebra mussels

Puddles, who works for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and her handler, Sgt. Pam Taylor, will demonstrate July 14 at the North Dakota Governor's Walleye Cup tournament on Lake Sakakawea how they detect the invasive species.

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Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Pam Taylor rewards Puddles after the dog detected zebra mussels during a demonstration at the Spokane Watercraft Inspection Decontamination Station near Liberty Lake on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. <br/>
Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review
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LAKE SAKAKAWEA — Puddles is expected to make a big splash when she comes to North Dakota to search for zebra mussels .

The 5-year-old mixed breed dog and her handler, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Pam Taylor, will be on deck July 14 for the North Dakota Governor's Walleye Cup tournament on Lake Sakakawea. Their goal: demonstrate how man's best friend can detect invasive species before boats launch and contaminate the fourth largest reservoir in the U.S.

“She loves to show off,” Taylor said of Puddles. “She loves to find zebra mussels.”

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Puddles, who works for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, is coming to Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota to demonstrate how she searches for zebra mussels.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The demonstration at Fort Stevenson State Park south of Garrison, North Dakota, is thanks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers partnering with Washington Fish and Wildlife. North Dakota Game and Fish may consider getting its own dog to detect the invasive species at Lake Sakakawea, said Ben Holen, an aquatic nuisance species coordinator for the North Dakota wildlife agency.

"They (the Corps) saw these mussel-sniffing dogs and thought it would be a good tutorial to try here in North Dakota and potentially look at getting a mussel-sniffing dog on Lake Sakakawea to look and check books and also do shoreline surveys for early detection," Holen said.

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Puddles joined the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2019 as a mussel-sniffing dog. She and her handler, Sgt. Pam Taylor, will come to North Dakota to demonstrate how they can find zebra mussels.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Noted for its small triangular shape and its stripes, zebra mussels spread quickly. By filtering algae and other food sources out of water, they can impact fish populations, smother native mussels and increase weed growth.

Studies have shown decreased walleye and perch growth in water with zebra mussels, Holen said.

The invasive species also can cut swimmers, cover boat equipment and clog water pipe systems, Taylor said. That can drive up the costs of water for consumers, diminish recreation and cause trouble for farmers who pull water from rivers, she said.

Once introduced to a body of water, they are difficult and costly to manage, she said.

"It's something we want to keep out for the ecosystem," Holen said.

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Puddles and her handler, Sgt. Pam Taylor with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Life's aquatic invasive species unit, demonstrate how they search boats for zebra mussels.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Zebra mussels are native to west Asia and east Europe and first came to the U.S. in the 1980s. They have spread throughout the Midwest, some southern states and the Mid-Atlantic.

Minnesota has confirmed zebra mussels in 270 lakes and wetlands.

Adult zebras were discovered in 2015 in the Red River.

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Four years later, the invasive species was found for the first time in a North Dakota lake . An angler discovered the mussel in Lake Ashtabula, a 5,200-acre impoundment of the Sheyenne River north of Valley City, North Dakota.

Zebra mussels have invaded other southeast North Dakota bodies of water: the Elsie, LaMoure and Twin Lakes, as well as the Sheyenne and James rivers, according to North Dakota Game and Fish.

The invasive species hasn’t made it to west North Dakota, including Lake Sakakawea.

The Corps has become more active in preventing invasive species from being introduced into the 300,000-plus-acre lake, Holen said. That's why the agency worked with Washington state fish and wildlife officials to bring Puddles to the Walleye Cup in North Dakota.

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Invasive zebra mussels were discovered for the first time in Lake Ashtabula north of Valley City, North Dakota, in the summer of 2019. North Dakota Game and Fish Department photo

Puddles, who first came to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department in 2019 after the agency received a grant, can find zebra mussels faster than humans, Taylor said. The dog can detect the invasive species in 30 seconds compared to the minutes it takes a human inspector. Sometimes, she can see zebra larvae that humans can't, Taylor said.

However, Puddles doesn't replace an inspector, Taylor said. Instead, they compliment each other.

Last year, Puddles searched 60,000 watercraft. But she does more than point to the culprit. Taylor has taken Puddles into classrooms and other places to educate the public.

“I think North Dakota will be impressed with what these dogs can do,” she said, adding people love dogs.

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Dogs like Puddles play an important role in teaching people about invasive species, which can help prevent infestation, Taylor said. Multiple states, including Minnesota, have mussel-seeking canines.

“They now know what an invasive species is because of Puddles," Taylor said of the public.

In the three days she is at Lake Sakakawea, Puddles also will search for quagga mussels, another invasive species that isn’t as widespread in the U.S. as zebras.

The pup won't be alone, Taylor said. Fin, a 2-year-old hound dog who is training to help Puddles, will also visit with her handler, Nick Knauss.

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Fin and his handler, Nick Knauss, also are coming from the Washington Department of Game and Wildlife to North Dakota to help search for zebra mussels on boats preparing to enter Lake Sakakawea during the Governor's Walleye Cup tournament.<br/><br/>
Washington Department of Game and Wildlife

If Fin and Puddles find a boat with zebra mussels, it will be decontaminated before going into Lake Sakakawea.

Training a dog to detect mussels takes continuous effort and commitment, Holen said when asked if Game and Fish would get dogs for other bodies of water in North Dakota. The agency is open to the idea, he said.

Friends of Lake Sakakawea Chairman Terry Fleck praised the idea of using a dog to detect zebra mussels at the Walleye Cup. The Corps and North Dakota Game and Fish are taking the problem seriously, he said.

Fleck said he would like to see state legislators take more proactive measures to prevent aquatic invasive species from infiltrating North Dakota bodies of water. Calling invasive species an "aquatic time bomb," Fleck noted states like Montana, Wyoming and Minnesota have mandatory inspections, check points and fines.

"No one knows exactly what will happen when that time bomb goes off," he said. "This is not just a Game and Fish issue. It's a statewide issue."

Boaters can prevent the spread of zebra mussels by properly draining, cleaning and drying boats between every use, Holen said. It's important to remove mud, plants and any organic material from watercraft, he said.

If you go:

Who: Puddles and Sgt. Pam Taylor

What: Demonstration to find zebra mussels on boats and other watercraft on boats launching for the North Dakota Governor’s Walleye Cup tournament

When: 10 a.m. Central Time, Thursday, July 14

Where: Fort Stevenson State Park, 1252A 41st Ave. NW., south of Garrison, North Dakota

Why: To prevent infestation of zebra mussels in Lake Sakakawea

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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