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Dogs could help sniff out chronic wasting disease on a reservation in Montana

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Chronic wasting disease is fatal for wildlife, and it might be dangerous for humans who depend on those animals. And this is a big concern on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. That's why researchers are training dogs to sniff out the disease, as Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Inside Kenneth Cook's home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, he's showing off a bison fur he recently taught local kids how to tan.

KENNETH COOK: And this was a smaller one compared to the larger bison that you'd see running around in Yellowstone or the ones that used to run around hundreds of years ago.

BOLTON: Cook says the hide was brain tanned, a traditional practice using fatty acids from the brains of wild game to strengthen the leather. Cook uses these hides to make drums and tribal regalia.

COOK: It's one of the only types of materials we can stick true to our real techniques on.

BOLTON: These days, Cook tans hides with pig brains because chronic wasting disease infects deer, elk and moose. So far, the disease doesn't appear to infect humans. But federal health officials say people shouldn't even eat meat from positive animals, let alone handle brains, where most of the misfolded proteins that cause the disease concentrate.

SOUTA CALLING LAST: Cut across here.

BOLTON: Blackfeet researcher Souta Calling Last is walking through a small wetland not far from where chronic wasting disease was first detected on the Blackfeet reservation. She says the disease's presence has already pushed some people to move away from practices like brain tanning. And she worries it could eventually threaten food security for tribal members that depend on wild game.

CALLING LAST: Right now, it feels a little scary because we don't know the impact. We don't know where it's at. And we don't know what it's going to look like 20 years from now.

BOLTON: The only way to know where the disease is present is to test animals shot by hunters or killed on highways, which takes a lot of time and resources tribes don't always have. Calling Last is heading up a project testing whether dogs can help.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAGE OPENING)

MICHELLE VASQUEZ: Want to come out? Hey, you come search, though.

BOLTON: A few hours to the south, near Missoula, trainer Michelle Vasquez with the group Working Dogs for Conservation releases a rambunctious black Lab named Charlie. He begins looking for black-footed ferret scent hidden in one of a handful of containers on the floor. It's just one of many scents he's trained to detect.

VASQUEZ: So yeah, the other ones have, like, bedding in them, rocks, grass, maybe prairie dog scent, whatever we think that they might encounter in the wild, just kind of give them a good picture.

BOLTON: Charlie quickly finds the right scent and is rewarded with a stuffed pink dragon to play with.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLICKING)

VASQUEZ: Good job, bud.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG TOY SQUEAKING)

BOLTON: Later this summer, Vasquez will train dogs like Charlie to sniff out chronic wasting disease in deer and elk scat. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have been testing a dog's ability to detect proteins known as prions that cause the disease in the lab. But Vasquez says this will be the first attempt to do so in the field.

VASQUEZ: A lot of people tell us, you know, I don't know how they could smell a prion. But they could be smelling some kind of, like, physiological change in the body, and that's what they're alerting on. Who knows?

BOLTON: Samples from the field will be sent off to special labs to confirm that the dogs have, in fact, found the disease. If it works, it could help Joe Hagberg with Blackfeet Fish and Game know where to go looking for animals to test on the 1.5 million-acre Blackfeet reservation.

JOE HAGBERG: So if our dogs pick up something, I mean, we could just say, OK, I mean, let's just pick out the smaller one out of the herd.

BOLTON: Researcher Calling Last says helping Hagberg detect the disease early could help prevent it from spreading out of control. Once she knows this detection method works here, she plans to expand it to other tribal communities across the country. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Browning, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.