Dogs sniff out chronic wasting disease for the Blackfeet Nation: Gunshots

Working Dogs for Conservation trainer Michele Vasquez secures a vest to Charlie, a Labrador Retriever, to let him know he’s working. Dogs like Charlie will help detect chronic wasting disease in deer and elk. They will also help find mink and otter droppings that can be tested for toxic substances near illegal dumps.

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Working Dogs for Conservation trainer Michele Vasquez secures a vest to Charlie, a Labrador Retriever, to let him know he’s working. Dogs like Charlie will help detect chronic wasting disease in deer and elk. They will also help find mink and otter droppings that can be tested for toxic substances near illegal dumps.

Aaron Bolton/Kaiser Health News

Kenneth Cook used a mallet and chisel to puncture a pig’s skull in the gravel driveway outside his home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwest Montana.

Cook planned to use pig brains in brain tanning, which has been practiced by indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

The brains are mixed with water and made into deer and elk hides to make leather. Cook said fatty acids from the brain soften the skin and give it a nice white color before it is smoked for waterproofing.

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“Brain will give you the strongest, most durable leather. That’s why people prefer it,” he said.

Cook uses the hides he tans to make drums, moccasins and tribal insignia. Typically, indigenous peoples like Cook use the brains of animals they hunt to tan hides. But Cook switched to pig brains for all his tannings, in part because of chronic wasting disease, which afflicts deer, elk and moose.

Chronic wasting disease is caused by misfolded proteins called prions, which deteriorate an infected animal‘s brain and bodily functions until it dies, usually within two years of infection. The disease has spread among herds across North America since it was first discovered in wild animals more than 40 years ago in Colorado and Wyoming.

The chronic wasting disease has been detected in a single white-tailed deer on the Blackfoot Preserve, but once present it is impossible to eradicate, wildlife managers say. The disease is already forcing tribal members to modify or abandon traditional practices like brain tanning, said Souta Calling Last, a Blackfeet researcher and executive director of the nonprofit cultural and educational organization Indigenous Vision.

Calling Last also fears that the spread of the chronic wasting disease will prevent the tribesmen from eating wild game. Some families depend on meat from deer, elk or moose, which they can hunt for several months of the year.

That’s where dogs come in. Calling Last received a $75,000 federal grant to conduct a year-long study to train dogs to detect chronic wasting diseases and toxic waste that might otherwise be ingested. by people who hunt wild game and gather traditional plants. The project aims to protect the health of tribal members by letting them know where disease has been detected and where toxic waste has been found in order to preserve safe spaces to carry out traditional practices.

Blackfeet researcher Souta Calling Last studies wetlands that serve as watering holes for deer, elk and moose on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. Calling Last runs a program that will take dogs to sites like these to check for chronic wasting diseases.

Aaron Bolton/Kaiser Health News


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Blackfeet researcher Souta Calling Last studies wetlands that serve as watering holes for deer, elk and moose on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. Calling Last runs a program that will take dogs to sites like these to check for chronic wasting diseases.

Aaron Bolton/Kaiser Health News

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people not eat meat from animals that test positive, although there is no evidence that the disease can be transmitted to humans. Rocky Mountain Laboratories researcher Brent Race said the possibility of prions infecting humans has not been ruled out. He noted that brain matter would be particularly dangerous to manipulate, as Cook does in his brain tan, because it contains the highest concentration of disease-causing prions.

“It’s definitely high risk,” he said.

Standing near a wetland full of cattails, Calling Last said dogs trained by the nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation will detect chronic wasting disease in deer and elk droppings at these sites which serve as troughs for the herds. The idea is to help alert wildlife managers to the presence of the disease as early as possible.

Dogs will also sniff out mink and otter droppings so they can be tested for chemicals and contaminants in illegal dumping grounds for old cars, furniture, and appliances.

Detecting these toxic substances will help protect tribesmen who use plants like mint for tea or burnt willows in sweat lodges, Calling Last said.

“In order for us to be healthy and strong, good-natured, good-spirited people, we are supposed to eat these foods to stay healthy and strong,” she said.

Calling Last plans to send feces, soil and water samples for testing from places where dogs alert their handlers to confirm they have found a chronic wasting disease. If Calling Last’s project proves that dogs can effectively do this job, said Working Dogs for Conservation trainer Michele Vasquez, the organization hopes to expand the effort across the country.

Working Dogs for Conservation trainer Michele Vasquez prepares 4-year-old Lab Charlie for the scent of the black-footed ferret at a training facility near Missoula, Montana.

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Working Dogs for Conservation trainer Michele Vasquez prepares 4-year-old Lab Charlie for the scent of the black-footed ferret at a training facility near Missoula, Montana.

Aaron Bolton/Kaiser Health News

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University Veterinary School have studied whether dogs can detect chronic wasting disease in the lab, but the project on the Blackfeet Preserve is the first attempt to do so in the field, Vasquez says. .

The training took place at a special facility outside of Missoula, Mont. There, Vasquez ran her 4-year-old black Labrador, Charlie, through her steps upon detecting the smell of a black-footed ferret lurking in one of the many containers. It’s one of many scents the Excitable Lab is trained to detect.

“They each have something different about them. So we’ll have distractors,” she said. These distractors could include food or scents from other animals that dogs will encounter in the field.

Joe Hagberg of the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department said he hopes the dogs will be able to determine if the chronic wasting disease is still present where it was first detected in the eastern part of the reserve.

“It will help us tremendously,” he said, standing at the edge of a flooded creek near where the positive animal was shot. Following the 2020 detection, Hagberg shot several sickly deer to understand the prevalence of the disease.

Hide tanner Kenneth Cook holds deer hides that he has “brain tanned”. Cook explains that leather made using this traditional technique is more durable and strong enough to withstand traditional stitching work compared to commercially tanned leather.

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Hide tanner Kenneth Cook holds deer hides that he has “brain tanned”. Cook explains that leather made using this traditional technique is more durable and strong enough to withstand traditional stitching work compared to commercially tanned leather.

Aaron Bolton/Kaiser Health News

“We harvested 54 deer from here in the whole…area within 10 miles,” he said. “We’ve all had negative tests throughout these.”

Hagberg is pleased with the results, but he said his resources to search for the disease in other areas of the 2,400 square mile reservation are limited.

Calling Last hopes future working dogs will give officials like Hagberg an edge in trying to contain the disease, which can go undetected for years before decimating a herd.

She plans to publish a study of her work and seek additional funding to replicate it in other tribal nations in Montana and Wyoming, many of which are in areas where chronic wasting disease is more prevalent.

Calling Last said the Blood Tribe, one of Blackfeet’s sister tribes in Canada, has already secured a grant for a similar project.

“I think just being able to monitor it, record it, and know for sure that you’re harvesting food that doesn’t contain prions would be a big win for any nation,” Calling Last said.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. It is an editorially independent operating program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation).

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