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Scientist spends days delving into carnivores' decomposition
Carleen Gonder looks over decomposing carcasses at a research site in Western Montana. Gonder has put together an interdisciplinary studie program that combines biology, criminology, and anthropology.

GREENOUGH - Deep inside Lubrecht Experimental Forest, death lies inside an electrified fence.

For more than two years, a pack of carnivores has been decomposing under the watchful eye of Carleen Gonder. Piles of maggot casings rim shiny skulls, fangs bared before mummified fur faces. A hiker once stumbled on the site and thought she had found a zoo gone literally to hell, assuming that the 15 bear, wolf and mountain lion bodies had been abandoned to starve in the woods.

Not true, although the truth is only slightly less ghoulish. Known to her friends as "the Carcass Queen," Gonder has spent all that time monitoring exactly how those bears, wolves and mountain lions decompose.

Gonder has worked as a game warden, park ranger and firefighter. In that time, she has come across scores of abandoned carcasses.

Once, as a lone federal game warden patrolling Washington's Hanford Reach, Gonder knew that finding a pair of beheaded mule deer meant trouble. Her detective skills led her to the spot where the poacher had taken his shot. That recovered a shell casing and a boot print. She got the word to other wardens, one of whom had just found a suspect with a questionable trophy mule deer rack.

Everything seemed wrapped up, except one detail. The suspect told his arresting officer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Steve Magone, now a game warden for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, that he had also shot six elk. Could Gonder find them?

The simple answer was yes. Gonder found the rotting carcasses. The hard part was connecting those dead elk to the suspect poacher.

Could she prove the elk were killed at the time the suspect was in Hanford Reach?

Yes: There's a field manual showing how to tell the time of death for most major game animals. It's full of stomach-turning photos showing how quickly insects start laying eggs, how soon flesh starts bloating and when it stops. There are bizarre tricks for hooking muscles to car batteries to see if they're less than four hours dead, and charts to test the reflectivity of drying eyeballs.

A good investigator can get almost the hour of death on a carcass less than 4 or 5 days old. The only thing missing from the field guide is whether all these techniques also work on the carnivores that hunt game animals.

Because dead carnivores don't show up at game check stations or hunting camps. They're found deep in the woods, days or weeks or months after dying. In the wildlife world, they're the classic cold cases.

"Everything is geared to ungulates," Gonder said. "But carnivores are hunted, too, legally and illegally. I wanted to do the same thing, but look at carnivores."

So she decided to become a student again. At the University of Montana, she put together an interdisciplinary studies program that combined biology, criminology and anthropology. For supervising professor Dan Doyle, the mix was as fascinating.

"What Carleen's doing has been pretty groundbreaking," Doyle said. "I haven't seen anything in the literature that covers the times or kinds of species she's done. And I've never seen someone able to do so much with so little."

Doyle said other researchers assumed such a project would require $100,000 or more in research expenses, something requiring big-league grant support.

Instead, Gonder talked some hardware dealers into donating fencing and supplies for a couple of big kennels, along with the gear to electrify the walls. A solar panel mounted on a tree provides enough electricity to deter any bear or eagle that tries to get at the remains. The Association of Midwest Fish and Game Law Enforcement Officers contributed funds.

She also had to get wildlife-handling permits from three states: Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. No animals were killed for her study. All came from roadkills, livestock protection or other unrelated incidents. Once her network of game wardens and other law enforcement friends got wind of her project, specimens started showing up.

"When I was a game warden, I always wanted this kind of training," Gonder said. "I figured others would be hungry for this stuff. Stuff is getting shot and left all the time, and you need all these bricks to build a case. And how much time does a game warden have to go around pounding on doors? Until I did this, none of this had been done with carnivores."

The potential cases are limited only by experience. There's the rancher who claims that he shot a wolf that was harassing his cows. Does the time of death match the time he was running cattle in that area?

For every legitimate incident, there's a poacher with sophisticated hunting gear and expensive lawyers ready to dispute the evidence.

If these cases involved dead humans, there would be lots of science to back up a prosecutor's charges. In poaching investigations, that kind of standardized fact-finding has been scarce.

Gonder's work has revealed much. In many parts of the United States, insects will consume a dead animal's hide and expose the bones. This is called skeletonization. But in Montana's dry air, the hide may dry out before the bugs can devour it. What looks like a month-old carcass in other regions may be a year old in Montana, because the body mummifies before it skeletonizes.

"There are so many unanswered questions here, things that need more work," she said. "If you chop the head off, you've provided a massive entry point for insects. If you field-dress or quarter it, that all affects the rate of decomposition. This is just the tip of the iceberg."

Gonder said the decision to restart her career track led to many sleepless nights. It's one thing to be a broke college student with a 4Runner that needs a brake job. It's another to be a 62-year-old broke college student.

"I'm just looking for work right now," she said recently as she prepared to remove the skeletons and pull down her enclosures. She has defended her master's thesis and completed her paperwork.

One member of Gonder's academic committee is Dave Oates, who wrote the field manual for time-of-death standards for game animals. He heads a wildlife research lab in Nebraska.

She is also supervised by UM professor Ashley McKeown, an anthropology expert who has done research at Tennessee's Body Farm.

Now Gonder's challenge is to make the rest of the law enforcement world pay attention.

Gonder and a handful of associates have already put on two training seminars detailing her discoveries. The first one, in 2007, filled up in two weeks. The second one, last summer, filled up in two days.

"The thing about this is it has immediate, practical applications," Doyle said. "A lot of what we do is basic science, and the results are hard to see."

Unless you know how to look.