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Bill would allow use of human remains to train search dogs

by HEIDI DESCH
Whitefish Pilot | April 21, 2021 1:00 AM

Three months after he disappeared while skiing on Big Mountain, Whitefish doctor Jonathan Torgerson’s body was found.

Torgerson was last seen on Feb. 17, 2018 and search efforts using cadaver dogs found his body in an avalanche zone on the north side of the mountain on May 12, 2018.

Prompted by the incident, and others where cadaver dogs have assisted in search and rescue efforts, a bill is making its way through the Montana Legislature that would allow dog handlers to use human remains for training.

Republican Steve Gist of Cascade is sponsoring House Bill 641 saying he was close with Togerson.

“When I was asked to carry this bill, I didn’t hesitate,” he told the House judiciary committee on March 31 while holding back tears. “He was not only a co-worker, a mentor and a man I had worked with for 10 winters. He was a father and a husband.”

“We need to pass this to bring families closure,” he added. “When a loved-one goes missing due to an accident or criminal act we need to be able to find the person to bring them back, and secondly we need to reduce the amount of time our search and rescue people are in harm's way.”

The bill would allow search dog handlers the ability to train with real human remains and would allow for human remains to be donated to search and rescue teams. The county sheriff or a designee of the sheriff would keep an inventory of the human remains being used for search and rescue training dogs.

The bill passed through the House 98-1 and had a hearing last week before the Senate judiciary committee which voted in favor of sending the bill to the full Senate.

In speaking before the Senate committee Scott Secor, Gallatin County Search and Rescue Commander, said training with human remains is necessary for search dogs attempting to find human remains. Currently, he said, human remains aren’t available for search dogs and the only items available are those with human scent such as clothing and bedding, but those can be contaminated with other smells.

“Just as drug detection dogs have access to the genuine article to ensure success, search and rescue dogs need access to human remains to ensure their success,” he said.

Secor said the bill will allow for better training, which means locating those who are lost faster.

“This is a vessel for families of the missing to obtain closure,” he said. “There’s nothing more heart-breaking than the search for a loved-one that day after day proves unsuccessful.”

Bonnie Whitman, with the Western Montana Search Dogs, a nonprofit organization based in Gallatin County, said search dog teams with the best training can provide the best response especially when timing is critical in finding the missing.

“We need to train with what we’re looking for to be the most effective,” she said.

The remains could come either from people donating their bodies or medical waste.