Dr. John Torgerson died in an avalanche in February 2018. Cadaver dogs brought in from out-of-state found his body buried in the snow. Mary Lehman, a search and rescue dog trainer and handler, read a report on his death to a panel of Montana state lawmakers March 31.
“A body was recovered on May 15, 2018, after nearly three months,” Lehman said. “After the individual went missing while skiing in the big mountain backcountry, drawing a close to a period of agonizing uncertainty for family and friends.”
Lehman has trained search and rescue dogs in Arizona, Utah, Texas and Montana, and has worked as a search and rescue officer for more than 20 years.
House Bill 641, sponsored by Rep. Steve Gist, R-Cascade, aims to give Montana search and rescue teams better access to cadaver dogs by allowing handlers to train with real human remains.
Gist said he had to carry the bill because he was close with Dr. Torgerson.
“(He) was not only a co-worker. He was a mentor — a man I’d worked with for 10 winters,” Gist said while holding back tears. “The reason I had Ms. Lehman read that is because I didn’t think I could read it.”
Scott Secor is the Gallatin County Search and Rescue commander. He said training dogs to smell something without the genuine article is impossible. Search and rescue cadaver dogs need to be able to differentiate between human bones and animal carcasses.
“Just as drug detection dogs use drugs … to locate drugs, search and rescue teams need human remains to find human remains,” Secor said.
Colette Daigle-Berg is a search and rescue dog handler. She said although the idea of a dog being able to differentiate between animal and human remains may seem far-fetched, dogs are capable of far more impressive feats. She told a story about a dog finding a missing man in rugged forest terrain from scattered articles of clothing.
“It would have been unsafe for those 100 ground searchers to be up searching that kind of terrain,” Daigle-Berg said.
The remains would come either from people donating their bodies or medical waste.
The committee advanced the bill unanimously, and it passed an initial vote in the House 98-1.
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James Bradley is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.