By Jamie Leary

DENVER (CBS4)– A Colorado Parks and Wildlife pilot program is slowly expanding with the addition of another four-legged officer to help cover more ground. The K9 officers are being tested as a resource for wildlife officers.

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“We got him three months ago and we’ve just completed a three month training program and it’s been a heck of a ride; it’s been an awesome experience,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Officer Ian Petkash with CPW’s eastern region.

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Petkash is the handler for Samson, the newest member of the CPW K9 team.

(credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife/YouTube)

There are three K9 officers total; CBS4 met Cash in September. They are all part of a CPW pilot program, testing the usefulness of dogs as partners in the field.

Ian Petkash (credit: CBS)

“It’s a tool that up until a couple years ago, here in Colorado, we were missing out on. We’re joining about half the other states fish and game agencies in using K9s,” said Petkash.

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Petkash says similar to police dogs, the K9s are trained to pick up many different scents which not only help in poaching cases but also help with wildlife conservation.

Samson, a 22-month old Belgian Malinois, can pick up the trails of nine different animals in addition to other scents that are out of place for the area.

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“He can perform an article search, so looking for evidence that a hunter may have discarded in the field; spent shell casings firearms, knives so on and so forth.”

And Samson can cover more ground than his two-legged partner.

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“When you’re out in the woods, it’s easy to miss something. Especially a minute piece of evidence that could lead to a big break in a poaching case,” said Petkash.

The pilot program, which began in 2016, has relied strictly on donations to fund the dogs and the training. CPW got lucky with Samson. He came courtesy of a grant from the Ben Roethlisberger Foundation. Others donated the training and the food.

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While Samson is fresh out of training, his first run at poachers was a success.

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“It was in 11 Mile Canyon and we had a situation where somebody had caught and kept too many fish,” said Petkash.

Petkash says it was Samson who found the cooler with the fish. The angler fessed up and was fined.

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While Samson’s sense of smell is one of his most impressive features, his confidence is another. It’s why he’s also training to be directly in the middle of human/bear conflicts. It’s what Petkash calls aversive conditioning.

“Basically teaching a bear to equate a bad behavior; say like breaking into the shed to get the dog food, with a negative experience. Specifically, being chased off by Samson. So he’s chomping at the bit to kind of be that negative experience,” laughed Petkash.

Rainbow trout (credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Samson hasn’t had a bear encounter yet, so as part of his training, he will be visiting areas with higher number of human/bear conflicts. Those areas shouldn’t be hard to find. Petkash says conflicts are on the rise.

“As Colorado’s population continues to explode, our bear population is doing very well, as well.”

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He is excited about testing a new, non-lethal method and is optimistic it will work.

“The darkest days in most wildlife officers careers are those when you have to put bears down because they have become a risk to humans and so my goal with Samson is to not only keep people safe but to keep bears safe as well.”

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Samson also helps CPW education efforts like bear talks and outreach events. Next month CPW be assisting with a wildlife forensics class at Mt. Evans Outdoor Lab. It’s geared towards getting kids interested in Conversation Law Enforcement and inspiring the next generation of game wardens.

LINK: Colorado Parks and Wildlife K9 Program

Petkash offers his gratitude to the following:

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“Ben Roethlisberger Foundation, Homes for Heroes, Newmont Corporation, The Coalition for the Upper South Platte, Taste of The Wild Dog Food and the Divide Feed Store. Johnson K9 has done a great job training me and Samson and I’m indebted to many K9 officers from CO Springs PD, El Paso County SO, and Fountain and Woodland Park PD who have given me advice over the last few months. The K9 pilot program is solely funded through donations. I’m currently trying to gather funds for a vest that will provide Samson protection while performing hard releases. We have a GoFundMe set up for anyone who wishes to help support the program.”

Jamie Leary