Feral or Not?

For the last few years, Lincoln Park Zoo has been working with the Northern Cheyenne tribe in southeast Montana in an effort to restore the endangered black-footed ferret. One component of that study is to determine if the feral dog population poses any threats to ferrets as well as the health of the Northern Cheyenne people.

Everyone says there are a lot of feral dogs running around the reservation, but how many dogs are actually out there? To find out, Davee Center Director Rachel Santymire and I braved the subzero temperatures and headed to the field to get some preliminary data.

Cold weather to set off looking for dogs!

Cold weather to set off looking for dogs!

Honestly, once I looked at the weather forecast I didn’t think we would see any dogs. Oh how wrong I was. We decided to survey the dog population using a technique called “photographic recapture,” which consisted of us driving around the reservation taking pictures of all the dogs we saw. This simple, virtual capture-recapture approach is commonly used to estimate dog population sizes because we can use the dogs’ unique markings to identify if we’ve already seen an individual.

We stayed along the main street, which was just under 2 miles long, and we saw dogs everywhere. There were dogs dodging cars, dogs begging outside the local trading post, dogs packing up and running in the streets, and momma dogs.

Dog activity included dodging cars...

Dog activity included dodging cars...

Begging outside the local trading post...

Begging outside the local trading post...

Running in the street in packs...

Running in the street in packs...

And canine moms.

And canine moms.

After driving the strip a few times, though, it became clear that one of the difficulties we’re going to face with estimating the number of wild dogs is that not all of these dogs are feral. Many have collars, but when no collars are visible, we can’t be sure if the dog is owned or not. This could make any management of the dog population more complicated.

Some dogs had collars.

Some dogs had collars.

But others don't making it difficult to tell at first pass if some are feral or not.

But others don't making it difficult to tell at first pass if some are feral or not.

Still, we hope that by getting an estimate of the dog population, we can assist in creating an environment where the dogs and the people of the Northern Cheyenne can coexist in harmony.

Mary Beth Manjerovic

Mary Beth Manjerovic, Ph.D., is a wildlife disease ecologist in Lincoln Park Zoo's Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology.  

Mary Beth Manjerovic, Ph.D., is a wildlife disease ecologist in Lincoln Park Zoo's Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology.

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