Some working dogs sniff birds, drugs, or stray skiers. The pack of Souta Calling Last will put their noses on the disease.
With help from an environmental justice grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, Calling Last’s Indigenous Voices and Working Dogs for Conservation will deploy trained dogs to find deposits of chronic wasting disease – the deadly and infectious scourge of wildlife threatening deer and elk in Montana.
Along the way, they can find hidden toxic waste dumps and other environmental hazards that put people’s health at risk.
“As a Blackfeet female, I am super excited to be with working dogs,” Calling Last said. “Dogs have always helped with our lodges and our families, and now in modern times they help protect our food system.”
Dogs will be trained to detect microscopic proteins called prions that cause neurological damage known as chronic wasting disease in wild ungulates. It is similar to mange in domestic sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. Prions emitted by infected animals can remain dangerous for at least two years in the soil.
This increases the risk that it will be taken up by plants such as sweetgrass, sage, mint, and other herbs commonly gathered by members of the Blackfoot tribe. There are also concerns that these plants take up other toxins such as drugs, solvents, or other chemicals that are illegally discarded.
CWD has been detected in deer at several sites along the Montana Hi-Line, and a first incident was reported on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation last fall. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has an active report and trace program to monitor the spread of the disease through wildlife communities in hopes of isolating sources of infection preventing it from becoming endemic in the state.
Working Dogs for Conservation executive director Pete Coppolillo said his dogs have been shown to be surprisingly good at tracking down disease.
Several of the dogs train at a facility in Turah, just east of Missoula. They’re not race-specific – one named Frost was recently the subject of a “guess-the-mix” that nearly baffled all of the staff.
Instead, they need a basic dog nose and powerful motivation to play. The result, after a few months of training, are dogs that can smell the difference between otter poo and mink poo, or CWD versus brucellosis.
And all they ask for in return is a treat or a few minutes to fetch.
Searches for mink and otters on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation may reveal hazardous wastes, which bioaccumulate in predator systems. To test for CWD, Coppolillo said researchers first need to confirm that dogs are not at risk of becoming infected by sniffing prions in the wild. Second, they had to develop a variant of the prion that was not infectious but had the scent qualities for dogs to look for.
“We even have NASA involved in the project,” Coppolillo said. “We gave them locations of old samples, and they created predictive spatial models where we should look for mink and otter tracks in the future. Then we combine those elements with hydrologic models, known point sources of pollution, population centers, hunting reports, hate crimes – they map everything. Then, they integrate these with spatial databases and this allows everyone to act on the information. We may find areas that are still washing away contaminants. “
The project is aligned with the EPA’s environmental justice goal as many features of the Blackfoot cultural landscape, from wildlife to plants and water supply, are at risk of contamination or damage. ‘another one. Calling Last said the $ 75,000 grant will help both initiate the initial research and develop a model or others to use in their home land.
“We hope that this money will bring in more matching dollars,” Calling Last said. “That way we can continue what we started and then help other tribes. I will continue until I solve it.