For Search and Rescue Operations, These Dogs Lead the Pack!

When she received the phone call, Colette Daigle-Berg felt her heart sink. A 4-year-old girl was missing. She had been abducted from Wolf Point, a community of about 2,850 in Northeast Montana. As members of the volunteer organization Western Montana Search Dogs, Colette and her dog Chapter were being asked to assist in the search for the child.

“She was abducted on a Friday, and we got the call on Saturday night,” recalls Colette, whose team is based in Gallatin County. “We left late Saturday, and arrived on Sunday morning. By then, they had found her shoes, and we were worried that it wouldn’t turn out well.”

A suspect had been arrested on Saturday, and by Sunday morning he finally agreed to direct authorities to a remote cluster of buildings on the outside of town. Working in tandem with Chapter, Colette managed to find the girl, hiding beneath a blanket, alive and well.

“It was so thrilling to find that little girl alive,” Colette says with excitement in her voice. “That was the most amazing experience.”

“Amazing” is a word that can easily be used to describe the abilities of the Search Dogs, whose duties range from finding missing hikers to avalanche victims. As was the case with the girl in Wolf Point, many of the stories have happy endings. In other cases, such as drownings or backcountry suicides, the search teams must take solace in bringing a small measure of closure to grieving families.

“They are extremely valuable to our Search and Rescue efforts,” Park County Sheriff Scott Hamilton says of WMSD. “We have a lot of rugged country, and the dogs are especially good getting through that kind of terrain. There are a lot of situations where I don’t know how we could get it done without them.”

WMSD is an independent, all-volunteer organization dedicated to serving the public. Team members personally purchase their own dogs, dog food, reward toys and other items. Wellness care, vaccines and the majority of vet bills are paid for by members, who also cover travel costs for most of their training events and some searches.

“They’re just dedicated to helping people,” Sheriff Hamilton said.

“We do it to bring joy to families when we find a lost child alive,” says Colette, who also is a member of Park County Search and Rescue. “We do it to bring closure to families who have lost loves ones. We look forward to opportunities to respond.”

To Colette, the real heroes are the dogs, who spend their lives in ongoing training, constantly refining skill sets and learning new ones. The teams hold certifications in disciplines such as Tracking/Trailing, Air-Scent (large area search), Human Remains Detection, Water Recovery (both from the shore and from boats), Avalanche, Evidence Detection, and Building Search. Most teams certify in at least one or two disciplines by age two. They must re-certify in each discipline every two years.

“We continually marvel at the remarkable capacity of our canine partners,” she said. “They are always ready to go to work, and they are absolutely amazing at what they do.”

Donations can be sent to Western Montana Search Dogs, P.O. Box 4505, Bozeman, MT 5977s. For more information on WMSD, please access their website at or you can visit them on Facebook.

Montana Raptor Conservation Center Helps Majestic Birds Soar Once Again

To Becky Kean, helping raptors is a labor of love—even though the feeling isn’t always mutual.

Are the birds charming and outgoing? Uh, no. Do they have effervescent personalities? Not necessarily.

“They pretty much despise us,” Kean says with a chuckle as she describes the animals that come to the Montana Raptor Conservation Center. “They really don’t want anything to do with us.”

Despite the raptors’ resistance, the staff at the Center helps them anyway, treating as many as 200 injured birds per year from all over the state of Montana. In many cases, the Center plays a critical role in saving the raptors’ lives.

“They have a tremendous will to survive, so they fight us all the way through,” says Dean, who has been Executive Director of the Center since 2008. “They aren’t going to give you many pats on the back.”

Still, as is the case with anyone who has seen raptors either up close or soaring on the horizon, the birds inspire admiration and awe. Says Kean, “You truly realize what amazing creatures they are.”

The Montana Raptor Conservation Center traces its origins back to 1988, when Bozeman veterinarian Dr. Susan Barrows began noticing injured wildlife in the Gallatin Valley and wanted to do something about it. She started an organization called Big Sky Wildcare, which treated animals of all kinds. In 2001, that group evolved into the Montana Raptors Conservation Center, with the focus solely on birds of prey, which include eagles, hawks, falcons and owls.

Kean joined the Center in 2003, when she was a student at Montana State University and a professor happened to mention that the Center needed volunteers. “I didn’t know much about raptors,” she recalls. “I was volunteering once each week and I soon found that going to the center was the highlight of my week. It became a passion for me.”

According to dean, raptors can be injured in a variety of ways. About 40 percent, she says, are hit by cars. Others are hurt by electrical contact. In some cases, birds are hit by gunshots fired by pranksters. Or, they can develop lead poisoning from spent ammunition.

While most injuries have human causes, the Center is dedicated to providing a human solution. The objective is always to return raptors in full health to their natural habitat, a goal that the raptors instinctively seem eager to share.

Says Dean, “I have tremendous respect for these animals and their desire to survive.”