CMU researchers improving quality of Great Lakes beaches using border collies

Chasing away gulls reduces levels of E. coli and other pathogens from sand and water
CMU student researcher team on duty

A team of researchers from Central Michigan University has been working to improve the bacteria contamination levels on beaches in west Michigan by using border collies to control the gull population.

A student team of five researchers spent the summer on four beaches in Ottawa County using border collies to chase away gulls and reduce the levels of E. coli and other pathogens from the sand and water.

CMU faculty members Elizabeth Alm and Thomas Gehring are overseeing the two-year project, funded by a nearly $250,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Great Lakes Restorative Initiative. Ottawa County provided funding for a telemetry study, tracking the commuting patterns of gulls.

Beach managers and the public have voiced an interest in fewer gulls on public beaches due to the potential for human health and safety concerns, as well as economic impact. Populations of some native gull species have increased in the Great Lakes region and beyond in the past few decades. There has been a dramatic increase in ring-billed gulls in southeastern Michigan since the 1990s. This influx has caused conflicts between humans and gulls.

“The gull population in the Great Lakes has exceeded historic levels,” said Elizabeth Alm, CMU biology faculty. “The large numbers of gulls attracted to public beaches are not only a nuisance, but microorganisms from gull droppings interfere with water quality monitoring and may pose a risk to public health.” 

Two border collies, trained and experienced in chasing geese and other birds, were leased for the project. Students were trained as handlers for the dogs. Success in using the dogs for gull exclusion is being measured as a reduction in the number of gulls, the level of E. coli and other pathogens, and the amount of gull-related complaints beach managers receive in the dog treatment zones.

“We are using border collies, in part, because it is a nonlethal management tool,” said Thomas Gehring, CMU biology faculty. “This makes it more acceptable to the general public, compared to lethal control of gulls such as shooting or egg oiling.” 

Samples of water and sand were collected at the beaches and sent to a lab at CMU for testing levels of E. coli and other bacteria. The number of gulls visiting the beaches was also tallied daily.

“Gulls have been found to carry a lot of bacteria and other pathogens in their feces, so having them on the beach in such large numbers is a health hazard,” said Dusty Jordan, CMU biology graduate student from Mount Pleasant. “By removing them from the beach, we’re hoping it improves the quality of the beach and water.”

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