Montana Blackfit Tribe to use dogs to sniff out diseases and contaminants

Browning, Mont. – Kenneth Cook used a mallet and a chisel to crack a pig’s skull on a gravel driveway outside his home at the Blackfit Indian Reservation in northwest Montana.

Cook planned to use pig brains in brain tanning, a practice practiced by aborigines for thousands of years.

The brains dissolve in water and work behind the deer and elk to create skin. The fatty acids in the brain both soften the lid and give it a nice white color before smoking to make it waterproof, Cook said.

“The brain will give you the strongest, longest lasting skin. So, that’s why people like it,” he said.

Cook uses his tanned skin to make drums, moccasins and tribal regalia. Typically, indigenous peoples, such as cooks, use the brains of animals to hide what they prey on. But Cook has switched to the pig’s brain for all his tanning, partly due to a chronic degenerative disease that affects deer, elk and mice.

Chronic wasting disease is caused by a misfold protein called prion, which destroys the brain and physical function of an infected animal until it dies – usually within a few years of infection. The disease has spread to livestock across North America since it was first discovered in wildlife more than 40 years ago in Colorado and Wyoming.

Only one white-tailed deer has been diagnosed with chronic pertussis in the Blackfit Reservation, but wildlife managers say it is impossible to eradicate it once it appears. The disease is already forcing indigenous members to change or abandon traditional practices, such as brain tanning, says Southa Colling Last, a blackfit researcher and executive director of the nonprofit cultural and educational organization Indigenous Vision.

Calling Last also expressed concern that the spread of chronic wasting disease would deter indigenous members from eating wild game. Some families can hunt for several months of the year depending on the meat from deer, elk or mussels.

That’s where the dog comes from. Calling Last received a 75,000 federal grant to run a year-long study to train dogs to sniff out chronic waste disease and toxic waste that would otherwise be accepted by people who hunt wild game and collect traditional plants. The aim of the project is to protect the health of tribal members by informing them where the disease has been identified and where toxic wastes have been found to preserve a safe place to conduct traditional practices.

Hyde Tanner Kenneth Cook has hidden the deer he is “brain tanned”. Cook explained that leather made using this traditional technique is more durable and strong enough to stand up to traditional sewing work than commercially tanned leather. (Aaron Bolton for KHN)

Charlie, a 4-year-old lab, is training for a project at Blackfit Reservation that marks the first attempt to see if dogs can detect chronic dementia outside the lab. (Aaron Bolton for KHN)

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people do not eat meat from animals that test positive, although there is no evidence that the disease can be transmitted to humans. Brent Race, a researcher at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory, said the possibility of prians infecting humans has not been ruled out. He noted that managing brain issues would be particularly dangerous, as Cook tanned his brain because it contained the highest concentrations of prey causing the disease.

“It’s definitely high-risk,” he said.

Standing by a swamp filled with kettles, Calling Last said that dogs trained by the non-profit organization Working Dogs for Conservation would detect chronic dehydration in deer and elk scat that act as water holes for livestock. The idea is to help warn wildlife managers about the presence of the disease as soon as possible.

Dogs will also sniff mink and otter scat so that it can be tested for chemicals and contaminants at illegal dumpsites of old cars, furniture and appliances.

Identifying these toxins will help protect tribal members who use plants like mint or willow roasted in sweat lodges for tea, Calling Last said.

“For us to be healthy and strong, for people with good spirits and good minds, we should eat these foods to stay healthy and strong,” he said.

Calling plans to send last scat, soil, and water samples for testing where the dogs warn their handlers to make sure they have detected chronic wasting disease. If the Calling Last project proves that dogs can do this effectively, Working Dogs for Conservation instructor Michelle Vasquez says the company hopes to expand its efforts across the country.

Michelle Vasquez (left) and researcher Sauta sit down with Calling Last Charlie, a lab trained to detect several odors for working dogs for conservation. (Aaron Bolton for KHN)

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine are researching whether dogs can detect chronic wasting disease in the lab, but according to Vasquez, the Blackfit Reservation project is the first attempt to do so.

The training was being held at a special facility outside Missoula. There, Vasquez ran his 4-year-old black Labrador retriever Charlie through his speed to detect the smell of ferret black feet hidden in one of several pots. It is one of the many fragrances that are trained to detect exciting labs.

“There is something different in each of them. So, we will be confused, ”he said. These confusions may include the smell of food or other animals that dogs will encounter on the field.

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

“It will help us greatly,” he said, standing at the edge of a flooded creek near where the positive creature was shot. After the 2020 detection, Hagberg shot several sick-looking deer to understand how prevalent the disease was.

“We’ve collected 54 deer from here … over a 10-mile radius,” he said. “We all had negative tests across all of that.”

Hagberg is happy with the results, but says he has limited resources to detect the disease in other areas of the 2,400-square-mile reservation.

Blackfit researchers surveyed the Sauta Calling Last wetland, which serves as a watering hole for deer, elk and mice at the Blackfit Indian Reserve in Montana. Calling Last is heading a program that will take dogs to such sites to sniff out chronic corrosive disease. (Aaron Bolton for KHN)

Calling Last hopes that soon-to-be-working dogs will give officers like Hagberg an advantage in trying to control the disease, which can spread anonymously year after year before destroying a herd.

He plans to publish a study on his work and seek additional funding to replicate it for Montana and other tribal countries in Wyoming, many of which are in areas where chronic wasting disease is more prevalent.

Calling Last said the Blood Tribe, one of Canada’s Blackfit sibling tribes, has already received grant funding for a similar project.

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

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