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Dogs on the run. Birds on the fly.

CMU biologists find dogs effective in chasing beach-polluting gulls


​Central Michigan University Institute for Great Lakes Research scientists Elizabeth Alm and Thomas Gehring recently compiled the results of their two-year research study on whether border collies could be used as a management tool to prevent gulls from congregating on beaches.

“High numbers of gulls on public beaches are not only annoying, but their droppings can cause property damage and may carry microorganisms such as E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter that contribute to the contamination of beach water,” Alm said. “The potential human health risks associated with these bacteria can lead to swimming bans and beach closures, which can be costly to coastal communities in lost tourism revenue.”

The gull population in the Great Lakes region has exceeded historic levels, but since they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty act, a nonlethal gull control method needed to be developed.

Considered the ‘workaholics’ of the dog world by the American Kennel Club, border collies are prized for their intelligence and working ability. Commonly used for herding and their ability to control stock with a stalking movement and intense gaze, they seemed like a good fit for managing gulls on beaches.

“One of the reasons we chose border collies for this study was because they have the instinct to chase, but not to catch, the gulls,” Gehring explained. “They were well suited for this type of work.”

Funded by a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Alm and Gehring spent the summers of 2012 and 2013 conducting their study at public beaches along eastern Lake Michigan. At the beginning of each summer, 200-meter sections of the beach were arbitrarily assigned to be dog-treated beaches or control beaches. The sections were swapped halfway through the season — dogs were moved to the control beaches, and the previously dog-treated beaches were left to be untreated controls.

Beach water and sand were collected once a week each year, and the number of E. coli in the samples counted. Samples collected from beaches in early summer where the dogs had run and excluded the gulls had significantly lower E. coli counts compared to control beaches where the dogs were not used.

Results from this study suggest that using properly trained dogs for gull harassment at recreational beaches is highly effective. The dogs were able to achieve a 99 percent reduction in gulls compared to control beaches without dogs, and when they kept gulls from congregating on the beaches early in the summer, E. coli levels in beach sand were reduced when compared to control beaches.

“Our study suggests that less intensive use of dogs — morning and early evening for a typical five-day work week — was effective at reducing gull use of beaches,” Gehring said. “This is in contrast to previous studies that suggested the dogs must be used all day, every day to be effective at reducing gull numbers.”

Central Michigan University is a leader in Great Lakes research, overseeing a $10 million EPA grant to monitor and assess the health of Great Lakes coastal wetlands, which support a $7.5 billion commercial and sports fishery.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is the largest investment in the Great Lakes in two decades. A task force of 11 federal agencies developed an action plan to implement the initiative, which covers fiscal years 2010 through 2014 and addresses five urgent issues:

  • cleaning up toxics and areas of concern;
  • combating invasive species;
  • promoting nearshore health by protecting watersheds from polluted run-off;
  • restoring wetlands and other habitats; and
  • tracking progress and working with strategic partners.

Alm and Gehring presented their research findings May 19 at the 114th general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston. News of the results of their study has been widely disseminated and since appeared in the Grand Haven Tribune, Greenwire, Los Angeles Times, Discovery News, Science Update, BBC, NPR and National Geographic.

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