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Deirdre Eitel, Associated Press
Hal Steiner, owner of Rocky Mountain Command Dogs, works with Nightmare as the animal sniffs for knapweed hidden in a cinderblock.

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Someday soon, man's best friend could also be one of his biggest allies in the war on noxious weeds.

That's the hope of researchers like Kim Goodwin, who are studying whether dogs can be trained to detect the prolific — and problematic — spotted knapweed the same way they can be trained to sniff out drugs and bombs.

Goodwin, a weed prevention coordinator at Montana State University at Bozeman, said she got the idea for putting dogs to work by seeing how dogs have been used at airports, mail facilities and ports of entry to search for everything from illegal drugs and bombs to prohibited agricultural products.

"I thought maybe dogs could do the same thing across landscapes because we have a problem with invasive plants spreading," she said. "To be most effective with weeds spreading, we have to detect them early."

That's been a problem because, while ranchers and land managers can fan out over a pasture to look for the weed, it is terribly time-consuming, and they often aren't very successful. Boredom and fatigue can set in and for each plant that's found, many others — particularly newer starts — are not, researchers say.

They believe a dog trained to focus on a certain scent could have far more success in detecting spotted knapweed early and alerting land managers to its exact location.

Enter a dog named Knapweed Nightmare. Nightmare, as trainer Hal Steiner calls her, was being trained as a drug detection dog for law enforcement when Goodwin contacted Steiner with her idea.

"I said, 'We'll switch this dog over and we'll go about it from there,' " said Steiner, who owns Rocky Mountain Command Dogs near Bozeman and has extensive experience training dogs for tasks ranging from medical service to drug detection.

Steiner said he has been working with Nightmare on smells, trying to get her more focused on the scent of the weed. Small knapweed samples are bundled in towels to create toys that Steiner often hides for Nightmare to find.

Over time, hiding places will get more difficult, with the toys tucked, for example, in a larger area amid other smells, he said.

"It's kind of a different environment than working with a police dog or seeing-eye dog, because the dog's going to have to cover rangeland," Steiner said. "So, for us, the control of that dog, to keep her within a 10-acre area and keep her from breaking on deer and all that kind of stuff is going to be more challenging, I think, than finding the weed itself."

Trials are scheduled to begin this spring. Researchers say Knapweed Nightmare will be unleashed on 10-acre rangeland parcels with known areas of spotted knapweed. The dog will wear a Global Positioning System flash card to track her movements, allowing researchers to map areas where she might stop to dig at a scent.

If the project proves successful, researchers and Montana land managers can see dogs one day hunting down the weeds on rangeland.

This is important, they say, because of what's at stake. Noxious weeds such as spotted knapweed can be costly to both the agricultural and tourism communities, leading industries in Montana's economy.

Dave Burch, state weed coordinator at Montana's Department of Agriculture, said spotted knapweed is estimated to cost the state's economy about $42 million a year. The weed, a problem throughout Western rangeland, infests about 5 million acres in Montana alone, he said.

While it's widespread, trying to hunt the weed down for elimination is rather unscientific. Ranchers and land managers search the range, often on foot, for the pinkish-purple flower head.

Roger Sheley, a rangeland weed ecologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service at Burns, Ore., said for that for each patch of knapweed found, many more go undetected.

Satellite imagery is another detection option but often fails to provide the detail needed to find a single plant, researchers say.

"I am convinced that until we are able to find detection strategies for new patches of weeds, they will continue to expand at an alarming rate," Sheley said.

Herbicides can be used to control spotted knapweed, at a cost of up to $50 an acre, said Jerry Marks, extension agent at Missoula County. Sheep, goats and even insects can also be used for control, he said.

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"It has become probably one of the most discussed and cussed plants I can think of," Marks said.

Spotted knapweed is competitive, capable of displacing native plants and wildlife and contributing to added soil erosion, officials say. It produces seeds that can be carried from one site to another by animals, cars or people.

The researchers and Steiner have high hopes their project can help reduce its spread.

"I'm the optimist," Steiner said. "I foresee teams of dogs and people looking out there for knapweed one day."