In the Woods: Pepper has a nose for detecting poachers

Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Senior Conservation Officer Jim Stirling hugs Pepper after demonstrating how Pepper is able to find fish in vehicles during at a check station near Twin Falls in 2012.

If you are thinking of poaching a few extra fish at Henry’s Lake, 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 1/2-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 last weekend 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 last weekend’s 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.”

Stirling agrees.

“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.

Until the viability of the 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.

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The Henry’s Fork Foundation is hosting “Henry’s Fork Days” on Friday and Saturday at the riverside fishermen’s access point in Last Chance.

The events start Friday with a casting contest and a $10 breakfast on the river.

There also will be updates on foundation projects Friday morning.

On Saturday, the festivities start at 4 p.m. The annual fundraising dinner will include silent and live auctions.

For information on the event, go to or call 652-3567.

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It is time to step up and give the local chapter of Trout Unlimited a hand.

Every spring since 1989, the Snake River Cutthroats Chapter of Trout Unlimited have worked in the Salmon River basin to help trout, salmon and steelhead.

During those 26 years, more than 37 miles of salmon and steelhead spawning habitat have benefited from more than 675 volunteers providing more than 5,100 hours of labor.

“Looking back and seeing that we’ve made a difference over that period of time is something that I take a lot of pride in,” said Paul Patterson, president of the Cutthroats.

This year, volunteers worked with The Nature Conservancy to help build fence around Lee Creek, a tributary reconnected to the Lemhi River.

For information about the Snake River Cutthroats, contact Patterson at 569-8031 or

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The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has awarded $276,584 in funding to Idaho for a handful of wildfire restoration efforts and habitat enhancement projects.

In Bonneville County, money will be used to improve aspen habitat on the upper basins of Fall and Bear creeks.

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Saturday is Free Fishing Day in Idaho.

It is an opportunity for anyone to try fishing without having to buy a fishing license. All other rules and limits apply.

In the Upper Snake Region, there are a number of events. They are 9 a.m. to noon at:

• Becker Pond in Ryder Park off Sunnyside Road in Idaho Falls.

• Mill Creek Pond off the Yale-Kilgore Road in Island Park.

• Rexburg City Ponds west of the Madison County Fairgrounds in Rexburg,

• Trail Creek Kids Pond near Victor.

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Salmon fishing on the upper Salmon River opens June 21.

The limit will be four fish per day and only two can be adults.

The upper Salmon River will be open from a posted boundary 100 yards upstream from the mouth of the North Fork Salmon River to a posted boundary 100 yards downstream from the Fish and Game weir at Sawtooth Hatchery south of Stanley. Fishing hours on the Upper Salmon River will be from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.

For more on seasons and rules applying to salmon fishing in Idaho, go to