BUTTE — Karen Gillespie and Jennifer Black have the perfect lab rats running around the woods of southwest Montana.
That's because the deer and elk out munching on grasses are excellent indicators of how far pollution from the long-defunct Anaconda smelter has spread. And with thousands of hunters out chasing those critters, the graduate students in environmental engineering at Montana Tech in Butte have a good opportunity to gather samples that shed light into their habitat.
“We're using the wildlife as an indicator of what the human exposure could be,” Black said.
The students' research, which for both is a master's degree thesis project, is a spin-off from work their professor Holly Peterson has done within Butte for seven years.
She began collecting dog hair samples to test contamination with arsenic and other heavy metals from the historic mining in Butte.
Peterson's work was inspired when she learned about the Auditor, a puli dog that lived for years in the Berkeley Pit.
She took samples from the dog's long, dreadlock-like coat to measure exposure to heavy metals around Butte and since then has collected hair samples from more than 400 dogs in town.
Black and Gillespie decided to take that model and apply it to a larger landscape and use wildlife as their lab assistants, so to speak.
Gillespie has been getting samples at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks game check station at Divide, southwest of Butte; Black has been doing the same at the Mill Creek station, south of Anaconda.
Black said they needed deer and elk from not only the areas that have been polluted, but also a clean area like the upper Big Hole Valley.
“We're trying to establish what the background levels are — what's the natural mineral rates in elk and deer,” she said.
And they wanted samples from game living in a similar landscape because they eat similar vegetation.
The samples will be tested in a lab for heavy metals.
That data will be plugged into a model to determine whether humans are at risk from exposure to heavy metals by eating game that has grazed in contaminated areas.
Black said they're not trying to spook hunters away from eating game. It's unknown whether the quantity of metals is enough to pose a risk.
But another student took hair samples last year from the Mill Creek station, data that's being used as part of the study. She found that an elk cow and calf that were killed close to the Washoe Smelter stack showed the area has some pollution problems.
“They had some of the highest levels of any we sampled,” Peterson said.
The project will help FWP gain insight into the game habitat around Butte, said Vanna Boccadori, a Butte area biologist who is working with Gillespie at the Divide game check.
For Black, who is from Great Falls, the hunting culture is nothing new.
But that's not the case for Gillespie, who grew up in Las Vegas and came to Butte to study at Tech.
She said the experience has given her an appreciation for hunters and their love of wildlife.
“They're not just out there to kill it and bring the meat home,” she said.
“They actually have respect for it and the management that goes into it.”