By Rob Thornberry
If you are thinking of poaching a few extra fish at Henry’s Lake, in eastern Idaho just outside Yellowstone National Park, you might want to look around for the pretty black Labrador with the sharp nose.
If you flock shoot a group of elk on some far-off knob, that same gun-oil sniffing dog may be your worst enemy.
And if you can’t keep yourself from killing a few extra ducks, he is going to give you away.
Meet Pepper: The Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s lone K-9 officer.
Pepper is a 4.5-year-old Lab trained in human tracking and area searches for odors of humans, gun powder and gun oil. He is also proficient in detecting eight different types of wildlife: elk, deer, antelope, pheasant, sage grouse, waterfowl, fish and turkey.
Pepper showed his skills recently at Henry’s Lake. Working with Jim Stirling, a senior conservation officer in the Twin Falls patrol area, Pepper helped inspect 164 vehicles as they were leaving the famed lake. If an angler had a fish, Pepper knew it.
“Pepper was awesome,” said Chris Johnson, a conservation officer in Island Park who organized the check stations. “He was able to pinpoint wildlife in coolers inside vehicles. I think most people thought it was pretty neat to watch. Pepper helped us a lot.”
Stirling started Idaho’s K-9 program in 2010 as a pilot project that will be reviewed in 2016. The idea was to see if a dog could help game wardens make cases and whether it was cost-effective to expand to more parts of Idaho.
Stirling and Pepper trained in Indiana for eight weeks and then set to work.
In the past three years, the dog has helped make more than a dozen cases. He also has assisted on 10 searches, including in 2012 when Pepper found a 2-year-old boy lost on a 17,000-acre ranch.
“The boys’ folks were pretty happy with Pepper,” Stirling said.
The bulk of Pepper’s work is check stations, such as last weekend’s effort at Henry’s Lake. As sportsmen stop to talk to officers, Pepper sniffs the vehicle. If there is a fish in the cooler, Pepper will know. Clever hiding places for poached trout are no match for Pepper’s nose, Stirling said.
“I think the program is invaluable,” he said.
But stopping poachers is only once facet of Pepper. More importantly, Pepper is bridge between Fish and Game and the public.
“There was a lot of curiosity from the public,” Johnson said. “I think there was a lot of education that happened last weekend because of Pepper.”
“The public relations aspect of this program are profound,” he said. “Pepper connects with kids, with people.”
No tickets resulted from Pepper’s visit to eastern Idaho last weekend.
Still, Stirling and Johnson considered the weekend a success, so much so that Johnson said he’d consider being a K-9 handler if the program was expanded in the future.
Stirling hopes the program will be expanded. He would like to see a K-9 team in each of the seven regions in the state. Whether or not that will happen is a decision above Stirling’s pay grade.
“Just having a chance to work with this dog has been phenomenal. It is a life change I would like to have taken on earlier,” Stirling said, pointing out the program has little extra cost to the department because most of the dog-care items have been donated by the public.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks does not currently have a K-9 unit, although there has been interest in starting one.
Until the viability of Idaho’s program is reviewed in two years, Stirling will continue working with Pepper to make poaching cases. That means lots of training and lots of travel as Fish and Game’s only K-9 team.
“I am very happy being a part of this team,” Stirling said. “Watching him work is like watching your kids be successful at a sporting event. There is a lot of pride.”
They are a team; a successful one, Stirling said.
“Taking care of the dog is pretty easy,” he said. “The most challenging thing is making sure he’s safe.”
The second most challenging thing is putting on the uniform and leaving Pepper at home.
“He gets very irritated with me when I go to work and he doesn’t,” Stirling said.