BROWNING, Mont. — Kenneth Cook used a hammer and chisel to hammer into a pig’s skull in the dirt driveway outside his home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana.
Cook planned to use pig brains in brain tanning, which has been practiced by indigenous people for thousands of years.
The brains are pounded in water and processed into deer and moose skins to make leather. Cook said the fatty acids in the brain both soften the skin and give it a nice white color before smoking it to make it waterproof.
“Brain gives you the strongest leather that lasts the longest. So that’s why people prefer it,” he said.
Cook uses the hides he tans to make drums, moccasins and tribal regalia. Typically, Indigenous people like Cook use the brains of animals they hunt to tan the hides. But Cook has switched to pig brains for all his tans, in part because of the chronic debilitating disease, which afflicts deer, elk and moose.
Chronic wasting disease is caused by misfolded proteins called prions that deteriorate an infected animal’s brain and bodily functions until it dies — usually within a few years of infection. The disease has spread to herds in North America since it was first discovered in wildlife more than 40 years ago in Colorado and Wyoming.
A chronic wasting disease has been detected in just one white-tailed deer in the Blackfeet Sanctuary, but once it’s present, conservationists say it’s impossible to eradicate. The disease is already forcing tribesmen to change or abandon traditional practices such as brain tanning, said Souta Calling Last, a Blackfeet researcher and executive director of the nonprofit cultural and educational organization Indigenous Vision.
Calling Last also worries that the spread of chronic debilitating diseases will prevent tribesmen from eating wild. Some families depend on the meat of the deer, elk, or elk that they can hunt for several months of the year.
That’s where the dogs come in. Calling Last received a $75,000 federal grant to conduct a year of research training dogs to detect chronic diseases and toxic wastes that would otherwise be ingested by people who hunt game and collect traditional plants. The project aims to protect the health of tribesmen by letting them know where the disease has been discovered and where toxic waste has been found to maintain safe spaces to carry out traditional practices.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people avoid eating 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 the prions infecting humans has not been ruled out. He noted that brain dust would be particularly dangerous to handle, as Cook does when tanning his brain, because it contains the highest concentration of the prions that cause the disease.
“It’s definitely a high risk,” he said.
Standing near a wetland full of cattails, Calling Last said the dogs trained by the nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation will detect chronic wasting disease in deer and elk droppings in sites that serve as watering holes for herds. The idea is to inform wildlife managers of the presence of the disease as early as possible.
The dogs will also sniff mink and otter droppings so it can be tested for chemicals and contaminants in illegal dumps of old cars, furniture and appliances.
Detecting those toxins will help protect tribesmen who use plants like mint for tea or willows burned in sweat lodges, Calling Last said.
“To be healthy and strong, people of good spirit and good spirit, we need to eat these foods to stay healthy and strong,” she said.
Calling Last plans to send feces, soil and water samples for testing from locations where the dogs alert their handlers to confirm they’ve found a chronic wasting illness. If Calling Last’s project proves that dogs can do this job effectively, Working Dogs for Conservation trainer Michele Vasquez said, the organization hopes to expand efforts across the country.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School have investigated whether dogs can detect chronic wasting diseases in the lab, but the project on the Blackfeet Reservation 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 let her 4-year-old black Labrador retriever, Charlie, run through his steps and discovered the scent of a black-footed ferret hidden in one of the several containers. It is one of several scents that the excitable Lab is trained to detect.
“They each have something different in them. So we have distractors,’ she said. Those distractors could be 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 chronic wasting disease still exists where it was first discovered in the eastern part of the reserve.
“It will help us immensely,” he said, standing at the edge of a flooded stream near where the positive animal was shot. After the 2020 detection, Hagberg shot several sickly-looking deer to understand how common the disease was.
“We’ve harvested 54 deer here in the entire area within a 10-mile radius,” he said. “We all had negative tests on those tests.”
Hagberg is pleased with those results, but he said his resources to look for the disease in other areas of the 2,400-square-mile reservation are limited.
Calling Last hopes the upcoming working dogs will give officials like Hagberg an edge in trying to contain the disease, which can spread undetected for years before decimating a herd.
She plans to publish a study on her work and seek additional funding to replicate it for other tribal lands in Montana and Wyoming, many in areas where chronic disease is more prevalent.
Calling Last said the Blood Tribe, one of Canada’s sister tribes to the Blackfeet, has already received funding for a similar project.
“I think it would be a big win for any country to just be able to track it, record it and know definitively that you’re harvesting food that doesn’t contain a prion,” Calling Last said.
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