Traveling to Cameroon, Africa to track the rarest gorilla on earth, the Cross River gorilla, is a dream for many conservation biologists, travelers and primate enthusiasts alike. But a local dog recently did just that, for two months.

Orbee, a border collie adopted from a Dillon shelter, has been traveling the country and internationally, sniffing out species on the brink of extinction and invasive species, like nap weed.

The affable collie is a part of an eight-dog group that comprises the Working Dogs for Conservation group. Most of the other seven canines were adopted from shelters by the women who run the group.

Four women founded Working Dogs for Conservation in 2000. Alice Whitelaw was one of them. She said high-energy dogs that don’t make great pets make great conservation dogs.

Orbee went from unemployed ranch dog to highly employed conservation dog in a few short months, Whitelaw said.

With the three other women, all scientists and informal dog-trainers, Whitelaw hatched a plan. The crux of the plan was to use smart, energetic dogs for the benefit of science and conservation. In practice, that meant rigorously training adopted dogs to sniff out specific scat. The goal was to track vanishing species’without ever having to trap the animal.

Whitelaw said she practiced using monitoring devices and traps to follow migration patterns of diminishing species’. But the dogs, after training, can pick out animal scat and completely cut out the need to trap the animal and interrupt their ecosystem.

“Instead of finding narcotics or bombs in suitcases, these dogs are trained to find scat,” she said. “Then we’re able to pick up on endangered species’ and non-invasively follow that population.”

With advancements in extracting DNA from scat, Whitelaw and the other women forged a partnership between canines and conservation.

The dogs’ performance in the field is quite remarkable, considering they were once dubbed inappropriate house pets and left at a shelter. Not only do the eight conservation dogs track scat, they also sniff out noxious weeds and invasive species’.

Tsavo, another working dog who lives with Whitelaw, was recently hunting for dangerous plants on Mount Sentinel in Missoula.

Another dog spent time in Oregon tracking a snail population that was decimating other native tree snails.  

Orbee was a meant to be a cattle-herding dog, he just didn’t know it, so his owners dropped him at an animal shelter. Since the conservation group adopted him, Orbee has built an impressive resume.

He just returned from fieldwork in California where he was sniffing out tiny blunt-nosed leopard lizards that are quickly disappearing. His trip to Cameroon marked the historic beginning of the country using dogs to track the elusive gorillas. Orbee has also tracked wolverines, grizzly bears and endangered kit foxes.

If endangered species can be non-invasively followed, Whitelaw said scientists can work on strategies to keep them from going extinct and protecting their homelands.  The job requires a lot of traveling for Whitelaw and her dogs, but the rapid advances it offers to science is worth the frenzied pace, she said.

And when the dogs aren’t in the field, they’re treated like family, being taken home by their trainers, living with other house pets, and roaming in spacious fields.

“Our dogs aren’t in kennels. All the handlers have their dogs living with them,” she said. “They live with our families, with our other pets. We find that that has increased their working lifespan significantly.”

Because they aren’t kept in cages, but rather treated like family, Whitelaw said the dogs love to work.

“Patrol and bomb dogs are retired at seven or eight years old,” she said. “Tsavo is still working at 11.”

The Working Dogs for Conservation headquarters are in Whitelaw’s house on a plot of land in Three Forks. Other founders and employees are spread around Missoula and California, but Three Forks is definitely home base, Whitelaw said.  

In addition to their busy work schedule, five of the eight conservation dogs are competing in the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards. Orbee is one of those dogs. Of the five dogs competing, two were rescues from Montana shelters, and two also live in the Gallatin Valley.

The awards celebrate law enforcement, service and general excellence dogs. The public can read the dogs’ bios and vote once a day on the dog they want to win at Voting ends June 30.