Poaching investigators take high-tech approach
Ryan Summerlin October 7, 2009
LARAMIE, Wyo. – In 2006, four Louisiana men were hunting in southern Colorado when they poached a six-point elk from a wildlife area for which they didn’t have a license.
They loaded the carcass into their truck and stayed the next few nights at a hotel in Trinidad, Colo. That night and the next, a black bear tried to drag the carcass from the truck.
The second night they shot the bear. They called officers from the Colorado Division of Wildlife about the bear, and the officers kept that carcass.
The men had placed an elk tag on their bull and lied about where they killed it.
After the men returned to Louisiana, the Division of Wildlife heard from an informant that the men didn’t have a license for the wildlife area where they had poached their elk. The district officers found the kill site and examined the evidence bloody dirt, rifle cartridges, tire tracks and footprints but the investigation seemed likely to end without enough evidence for a conviction.
Until they remembered the black bear carcass, still sitting in a freezer.
“We pulled out the bear hide and started looking at it,” a Colorado Springs-based investigator for the division said. Sure enough, remains of that bear’s last meal were still on its claws, teeth and head.
Scientists from the Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Forensics and Fish Health Laboratory, located in a lab in the Biosciences Building on the University of Wyoming campus, took it from there, using high-tech forensic science to match blood from the site to tissue and hair samples found on the frozen bear carcass.
“Through their intelligence and expertise, we were able to make a positive match between the kill site and the carcass of the bear that had been chewing on the elk in the back of the truck,” the investigator, who asked that his name not be used, said. “We didn’t have any other evidence or samples to compare it to. That was what we needed in order to be able to make the case.”
The Louisiana men paid more than $16,000 in fines.
There’s a popular TV show that glamorizes such work, but instead of a New York alley or a Miami nightclub, picture a field in a remote part of Wyoming. Maybe a carcass has been left behind and a trophy hunter has taken just the head.
Maybe a hunter killed an animal on private land, loading up the entire carcass and leaving a patch of blood. Unlike a human crime lab, wildlife forensics involves working with a dozen different big game animals, but the DNA science is similar.
“It’s a very small group of people that do this kind of work. There are only six or seven labs in the country,” Dee Dee Hawk, the laboratory director, who started the Laramie lab for Game and Fish more then a dozen years ago, said.
The technology has come a long way in the past few years, and today scientists use protein analysis and DNA sequencing while working with tissue, bone, blood, antlers, horns and whatever human evidence has been left behind. They can determine species and gender, distinguish one animal from another or prove that samples came from the same animal.
The lab uses a technique called microsatellites to find the unique genotypes for the tissue samples it receives. Non-coding portions of 12 chromosomes are examined and then compared between samples.
“There’s often errors in transcription when that DNA is replicated. That’s how you can get DNA from one animal to look completely different from another animal in the same herd. What we end up with is a barcode for each one of those animals,” Hawk said. “We compare that barcode from one item to a barcode from another item. The barcodes have to match exactly to be able to say they came from the same animal. If there’s any difference whatsoever, they came from different animals.”
Hawk and the other lab employees have testified in court from time to time, but usually their credentials and the evidence they have are enough to motivate a guilty plea.
“We get a lot of subpoenas and we get really, really close a lot of times,” she said.
In 2003 in Colorado, wildlife officer Bailey Franklin received information regarding a poached bighorn sheep ram near Craig, Colo. The poachers got scared they’d be caught with the carcass, so they cut the body into pieces, stuffed them into black garbage bags, and dumped them at a landfill.
Then they cut up the skull and horns with a saw and scattered them along a county road. After one of the suspects confessed, Franklin searched by hand through several feet of snow to find a piece of horn. Franklin also found the saw and other hair and blood samples.
He submitted that evidence to the forensics lab, which confirmed that the pieces were from a male bighorn sheep and linked them to the saw. Two of the suspects ended up incurring more than $30,000 in fines and 12-year license bans in Colorado.
Earlier this week, three men from West Virginia pleaded guilty in Craig, Colo., to poaching involving dozens of deer and antelope. The forensics lab used evidence including a knife, bullets, hair from a truck, gloves, boots, shirts, headless carcasses and tissue samples from frozen meat obtained through a search warrant to link the men to the site and figure out how many animals were involved.
They’ll be sentenced in November, game warden Rich Antonio said. “It was just ugly,” Hawk said. Ugly, yes, but no longer unsolved.