Laramie-based wildlife forensics lab uses DNA to solve poaching cases

Nov 30, 2012

INTRO: Each year, the Game and Fish Department discovers dozens of wildlife crimes in Wyoming. They range from hunting without a license, to killing an animal from the road. The department takes these infractions very seriously, and runs a cutting-edge wildlife forensics lab to investigate them. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow visited the lab and filed this report.

WILLOW BELDEN: Wildlife officials usually find out about poaching when someone discovers a kill that seems fishy. For example, someone stumbles across a headless carcass, or a pile of guts in an area that’s off limits to hunting. Wyoming’s Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik says when that happens, wildlife investigators visit the scene and look for a suspect.

BRIAN NESVIK: We had once incident where we could tell exactly what happened by the vehicle tracks and by the shell casings and by this dead deer carcass without a head that was laying there – we could tell that they’d shot this deer off the road the night before. And they left behind a coffee cup. And it was a very unique coffee cup that only one business in town sold.

BELDEN: So the investigators went to that business, and within an hour, they found their suspect.

Once they have a suspect, investigators often collect samples of meat from the person’s freezer, or hairs from an animal head on the wall, or blood from a kitchen knife, and they send the evidence to the wildlife forensics lab in Laramie.

NESVIK: The lab is probably one of the nation’s leading wildlife forensics labs. … They’re our CSI for wildlife, if you will.

BELDEN: The lab isn’t what you might picture for a high-tech forensics facility. It’s housed in a windowless set of rooms at the University of Wyoming, and the scuffed wood cabinets and worn black table tops give it the feel of a science classroom from a bygone era. Yet the facility does advanced detective work, like DNA analysis.

Dee Dee Hawk is in charge of the lab. She shows me a white machine that looks kind of like a mini refrigerator.

DEE DEE HAWK: So this is the actual hardware of the DNA sequencer.

BELDEN: Hawk opens the machine. Inside is a pool of gel. Her colleague brings over tiny containers of DNA bathed in a purple liquid and injects the DNA into the gel. One set of DNA is from an elk carcass found in the field. Other samples are from meat found at the defendant’s house. Hawk says the machine uses lasers to analyze the DNA.

HAWK: And what we end up with when we’re done is kind of like a bar code for each piece of evidence. So we compare the bar code from one piece of evidence to the bar code from the other piece of evidence, and they have to match exactly to say that they came from the same animal.

BELDEN: In other words, they can figure out whether the elk remains from the field came from the same animal as the meat in the suspect’s freezer. And that’s how they catch poachers.

Hawk says one memorable case involved a trophy elk that was killed in an area where hunting was not allowed.

HAWK: They brought it out and loaded it in the back of their pickup and they drove off to another area, did some additional hunting, and when they came back out of the area there was a bear in the back of their truck eating on the elk that they had just poached.

BELDEN: They shot the bear and called the game warden, who confiscated the bear.

HAWK: At the time, he was asking questions about the elk because it was such a trophy, and their answers were a little bit hinky but he didn’t have enough information to do anything about it.

BELDEN: Two weeks later, someone found a pile of guts in an area that was closed to hunting. So the game warden sent the bear, and a sample from the gut pile, to the forensics lab.

HAWK: We found elk tissue in the claws of the bear, and we matched that tissue back to the kill site.

BELDEN: The hunters were later convicted.

John Demaree is a wildlife investigator in Laramie. He’s been in the business for 35 years, and he says the forensics lab has changed the way they investigate crimes. In the past, they had no way to match samples from the crime scene to evidence at the suspect’s home.

JOHN DEMAREE: We’d have to work harder at either getting confessions or eye witnesses or other evidence that we could get for a conviction.

BELDEN: In addition to catching poachers, Game Warden Brian Nesvik says the lab can track down wildlife that attacks humans.

NESVIK: For example, we had an individual who was attacked by a grizzly bear and killed. And we needed to know which bear for sure was the bear that was involved in that.

BELDEN: Nesvik says they typically collect biological samples from grizzly bears when they collar them, and they keep those on file. So in this case, within 24 hours, the forensics lab was able to match one of the samples on file to hair from the scene of the attack. With that, they determined which bear was the culprit and euthanized it.

Running the lab costs hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. But Nesvik says it’s worth it.

NESVIK: We feel it’s important to invest sportsmen’s dollars in this, because they expect us to protect wildlife and to make sure everybody’s playing fair.

BELDEN: Nesvik says Game and Fish only knows about 5 to 10 percent of the poaching cases that occur. But when they do find out about a case, they’re able to catch the perpetrators 50 to 75 percent of the time, and they often fine the offenders thousands of dollars. Their hope is that that will serve as a deterrent against future poaching. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.

To listen to the entire November 30, 2012 Wyoming Open Spaces program, please click here.