Blackfeet Tribe will use dogs to detect diseases and contaminants
BROWNING — 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.
“Brain will give you the strongest and 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 of his tanning, 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. Disease spread among the herds across North America since its discovery in wild animals more than 40 years ago in Colorado and Wyoming.
Chronic wasting disease has been detected in a single white-tailed deer on the Blackfoot Reservation, but once it is present, it is impossible to eradicate it, according to wildlife managers. 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 view.
Calling Last also fears that the spread of the chronic wasting disease will prevent the tribesmen from eating wild game. Some families depend on the meat of deer, elk or moose which they can hunt for several months a 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.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people do 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 the dogs trained by the non-profit organization Conservation Working Dogs will detect chronic wasting disease in deer and elk in the droppings of these sites that serve as watering holes 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 dumps of 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.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania The vet school has 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, according to Vasquez.
The training took place at a special facility outside of Missoula. There, Vasquez chased 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 will have distractors,” she said. These distractors could include food or scents from other animals that the 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-looking deer to understand the prevalence of the disease.
“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.