one green planet
one green planet

In Blackfeet Country — home to four different Native American tribes — dogs have been put to work in hopes of determining what’s behind recent mysterious diseases in the area. Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C) has been leading the charge in determining the reason behind unfamiliar and unknown thyroid issues and cancers in the area. Souta Calling Last, who is a member of the Blood Tribe and is also a researcher, has enlisted the services of WD4C, in hopes of solving this mystery. Calling Last’s $75,000 federal grant has enabled her to do a year-long study, with the help of WD4C.

Tribal members in the region have had to alter their ways of life, partly due to what is known as “chronic wasting disease,” typically found in elk, deer, and moose. This disease is “caused by misfolded proteins called prions, which deteriorate an infected animal’s brain and bodily functions” until they die — which is typically within a couple of years after being infected. Chronic wasting disease has been spreading among herds throughout North America, after originally being discovered nearly half a century ago in Wyoming and Colorado. This disease has been preventing some tribal members from eating wild game, which is a common source of protein for them. Even though it’s unclear whether or not this disease can be passed to humans who consume these animals, the CDC recommends that people do not eat the meat from an animal who has tested positive.

Originally, it was suspected that “that traditional sources of sustenance for countless generations had become contaminated and diseased,” which lead people in the region to stop harvesting animals and wild plants, such as huckleberries and mint. However, there isn’t enough research to suggest a link between these health issues and the tribes’ environment. Calling Last hopes that, by utilizing dogs in the WD4C, she can conduct extensive scientific surveys of “environmental contaminants in Blackfeet territory.” If successful, this can enable the Blackfoot tribes to resume their normal ways of life, by informing them as to where the toxins are found so that those areas can be avoided.

Often, the dogs trained by WD4C for tasks such as these are rescued and/or surrendered, and this training gives them full lives where they are unlikely to be bored. Dogs who are tracking diseases in Blackfeet Country have been trained to specifically locate otter or mink droppings (aka scat), which are wont to contain toxins due to the processes of bioaccumulation and biomagnification. This is when “substances move through the food chain and get concentrated in organisms.” After insects pick up these toxins, these dragonflies and mayflies are eaten by fish (namely trout), who are then consumed by otters and mink. The resulting scat can be replete with toxins. When the dogs find the scat, it is then sent to a lab — along with any other relevant samples —  to a lab to be tested.

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