CRAWFORD — This is a story about a dog and poop.
Not just any poop — as any dog could tell you — but droppings from the state's apex predator: mountain lions.
A lot of what wildlife biologists know about the big cats recolonizing parts of Nebraska can be credited to the nose of a graying Chesapeake Bay retriever named Train.
The nose of scat-sniffing Train has led biologists to hundreds of mountain lion droppings for genetic analysis. The resulting information has helped in developing sophisticated population and density models for the notoriously elusive and wide-ranging cats, said Sam Wilson, carnivore program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in Lincoln.
Funded by federal grants, the research helped Wilson and colleagues Karie Decker and Alicia Hardin to prepare the state's first mountain lion management plan.
Reliable population estimates have been calculated and family relationships identified among cougars since the genetic surveys began. While the commission has not created an estimate for the number of mountain lions statewide, genetic surveys conducted from 2010 to 2015 indicated a relatively stable population ranging from 22 to 33 animals in the Pine Ridge alone.
Train's rewards for sniffing out scat in the field are a belly rub and a brief game of tug-of-war with a tennis ball retrofitted with a rope handle. At lunch he wolfs down somebody's leftover peanut butter sandwich and apple. Then it's over a rocky ridge, across a creek bottom, along a canyon animal trail or through a tangle of fallen trees from old wildfires in search of the next hit.
"Animals, of course, poo everywhere — wherever they happen to be," said Train's handler, Karen DeMatteo, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis.
Sometimes it's in the middle of a cornfield.
DeMatteo and Train have worked together for nine years, including five trips to Nebraska since 2010. They spent two months in the Pine Ridge conducting scat surveys for Game and Parks last spring.
DeMatteo, 48, found Train at PackLeader Dog Training in Gig Harbor, Washington, a decade ago, when she was seeking a detection dog for research into preserving habitat for bush dogs, jaguars and pumas in Argentina.
The center was attempting to school the high-energy Train in the work of drug detection for law enforcement officers.
"He failed," DeMatteo said. "He was too energetic. Way too energetic."
But the dog with the extraordinary nose exhibited laser-sharp focus in detecting the scat of specific wildlife species in the field. Dogs' sense of smell is 1,000 times keener than humans'. Their enhanced olfactory system is sensitive to air currents and capable of localizing odors to pinpoint the source, whether exposed or hidden in the environment.
Train quickly learned to distinguish mountain lion scat from that left by coyotes, foxes and other wildlife.
"Train was just a machine from day one," DeMatteo said.
Wilson met DeMatteo and Train when they and another handler and dog came to Nebraska seven years ago for a pilot study in surveying for cougar scat. Train was the star.
One of Wilson's fundamental questions in attempting to manage mountain lions was estimating how many were in the Pine Ridge. Scat surveys were a scientific solution. Scat collected in paper lunch sacks is sent to a genetics lab to confirm that it is from a mountain lion and, when possible, to identify individual cats, their gender and age.
DeMatteo and Train's daily hikes in the Pine Ridge this year averaged 9 miles in length and the equivalent of climbing 75 flights of stairs. In total, DeMatteo trekked more than 300 miles this year across the state and, with permission, private land. Train followed his nose across more than 1,500 miles.
Their days often begin at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. as they drive two hours to a location to begin hiking at sunrise, working until it gets too hot, then DeMatteo spending a few hours picking ticks off Train ("He thinks it's a massage."). They often didn't return to their base until 6 p.m.
Once in a while in the field, Train stops cold. The bell around his neck — intended to prevent them from surprising a cougar — goes silent. Chills run down DeMatteo's neck. She knows what to expect.
"Train, got something?" she asks.
The tail wags once.
"Train, got something?"
The tail wags twice.
"Train, find it."
The dog looks back, scans the area and then points with his nose at a distant spot. Usually DeMatteo discovers a little pile of fresh, steaming mountain lion scat. The cat had just been there. Train won't go near it.
"It's kind of eerie," she said.
Most droppings DeMatteo picks up are old and cold — and the cougar is long gone.
DeMatteo and Train hiked this year with Game and Parks wildlife researchers Linsey Blake or Maria Baglieri, who kept them from wandering out of the day's target area and were also there for safety.
At Metcalf Wildlife Management Area north of Hay Springs in early June, Train waded into a scummy pond to cool off. He immediately started screaming. He flailed in the water.
DeMatteo stepped in and pulled out the dog. He had a shallow five-inch cut sliced down the inside of his left rear leg. There was no steel debris or barbed wire in the pond. DeMatteo suspects Train was the victim of a snapping turtle.
Despite his injury, Train walked out of the remote area. He spent the rest of the day having his wound stitched by a veterinarian in Rushville and being outfitted with a lampshade from Walmart in Chadron to prevent him from licking his sutures. He took one day off before returning to work.
DeMatteo said Train, thought to be 10 years old, continues to amaze her with his dedicated work ethic.
"He pushes through downed timber, jumps obstacles and trots in his zigzag pattern up the hills like it was just another road he was searching, despite the hot weather that slowly creeps up on us," she said. "He's 75 pounds of pure muscle."
Although he's reached senior status for dogs, Train is showing that he isn't ready to stop doing what he loves, DeMatteo said.
"He's determined. And he has an incredible nose."