Seminar teaches wildlife forensics for poaching cases

2012-05-24T10:03:00Z 2012-05-24T10:15:33Z Seminar teaches wildlife forensics for poaching casesBy ROB CHANEY of The Missoulian The Billings Gazette
May 24, 2012 10:03 am  • 

CLEARWATER JUCTION – The wolf had been dead so long, even the maggots didn’t want to hang around.

The legless creepers drew a distinct trail in the dirt as they abandoned the carcass, wriggling their way 30 feet to a shady spot to lay new eggs. Simon Fraser University criminology professor Gail Anderson sent her students out with spoons to find the maggots and any egg casings.

“It only takes 10 or 15 minutes to collect these,” Anderson told a circle of game wardens, sheriff’s deputies and tribal police officers as she poked around the wolf’s body. “But it can make all the difference in court.”

The Canadian researcher often gets a dozen calls a year to work on human murder cases. But last week, she was a featured trainer at the Wildlife Field Forensics Seminar held in the Seeley Lake area. And convincing a solo critter cop to spend time at a mystery crime scene when there are plenty of fools with guns committing more obvious violations on their 30,000-acre beat requires some cajoling.

A strong stomach helps, too. The smells coming from the “classroom” at the back of the Montana Department of Transportation gravel pit didn’t gag any maggots. But it prompted more than a few students to smear their noses with lavender ointment.

“The first person who has to run to a tree and gag gets this T-shirt,” seminar organizer Carleen Gonder called to the crowd as they approached an oversized dog kennel filled with dead animals. “And watch for beetles. They’re going to be crawling up your pant legs.”

In the world of wildlife crime scene investigation, bugs may bear the best witness. Slob hunters who take only the antlers and backstraps of a trophy elk, or medicinal poachers who kill bears for their paws and gall bladders, usually do so far from spying eyes. But the remains they leave behind tell a story, too.

Maggots appear on a carcass at very predictable times after death. They lay eggs at another predictable interval, and those eggs hatch at yet another time mark. Certain types of beetles move in to eat those eggs and larvae. Newly hatched flies need a certain amount of time for their wings to unfurl. Know your bugs, Anderson explained, and you know your time of death within half an hour.

“People who work wildlife cases often run into a certain type of serial poacher that can have a devastating effect on wildlife communities,” Gonder said. “A lot of it is greed-driven, and these people can often afford the best defense attorneys. We’re trying to upgrade our skills, so once the case hits court, a deep-pocketed attorney can’t go after our evidence-collection techniques.”

Gonder started collecting carcasses in April. By mid-May, her kennel had mountain lions that looked like fuzzy crochet rugs and a black bear that had been killed two days before the conference after raiding chicken coops. Once dispatched, the bear took a couple of more bullets so officers could practice necropsy investigations.

“You’re never going to retire saying, ‘I sure knew how to use a metal detector,’ ” said Tony Lantham, a retired Idaho Fish and Game warden and regular presenter at Gonder’s seminars. “But your classic game warden has to be a jack of all trades.”

Lantham recommended getting a bargain-end detector rather than a spendy model, because the fancy versions concentrate on gold and silver while screening out less valuable metals. Game wardens look for lead, and perhaps brass. A better feature to buy, Lantham said, was waterproofing. The chances are high your investigation will take place in a fall rainstorm, or worse, a river.

High-velocity bullets tend to be “fragmentation city” inside a body, Lantham warned. That’s important in archery season when someone claims they made a perfect shot with an arrow when someone else heard gunshots. A naked eye might miss the tiny shards, but an X-ray won’t. He demonstrated how to slice out an appropriate chunk of meat that a veterinarian can scan for courtroom-ready evidence.

Forensic scientist Karen Rudolph demonstrated the proper kinds of meat and other specimens needed for a bomb-proof DNA sample. Sometimes you take a chunk from the carcass to match with the trophy head. Sometimes you grab a package out of the freezer with a search warrant.

In that case, stay away from the sausage, Rudolph warned. Game meat sausage often gets combined with domestic pork or beef fat for flavor, confusing the DNA testing. And some commercial sausage makers combine the scraps of multiple animals in their links, hopelessly muddying the test tube.

“In the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve seen a real change in the woods,” said Wyoming Game and Fish warden Jim Olson. “The meat is not as important as it used to be. Certain people are just into heads and horns, where it used to be the only reason you were out hunting was to fill the freezer.

“Now you get some guy from Chicago who shoots his trophy bull, and he doesn’t want to pay for the processing and the transportation. To him, the meat’s just an inconvenience.”

Wasting usable parts of a big game animal is a crime in most states with active hunting populations. But Olson said in many places, a game warden learns field forensics from the older warden in the neighboring district. The chance to spend three days with fellow officers from throughout North America working on cutting-edge investigative science was a welcome improvement.

And there’s lots more to do, Gonder said. The decomposing animals she collected for the fieldwork disintegrated on a timeline set by Clearwater Junction’s climate and geography. A relatively short drive in any direction, and the amount of rainfall, relative temperatures and soil types all change.

“When you get back home, find something dead and make a study sample of it,” Gonder advised. “In some parts of the country, you can have a bone pile in three days – maybe one day. Here it can take weeks. This is still seat-of-the-pants stuff. We need more people doing it.”

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