By P.J. Reilly
High tech forensic science comes to the deer woods.
Officer Chad Eyler knew the circumstances of the victim’s death didn’t match up with the suspect’s story. Now he just needed to prove it.
To do so, Eyler turned to police tactics commonly seen on the TV series CSI. He submitted evidence for DNA testing.
While TV’s CSI features police officers trying to solve crimes involving human victims, Eyler is a wildlife conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The victim was a 175-inch trophy white-tailed buck.
Through forensic tests, Eyler found the smoking gun he needed to solve the case. In doing so, he made history. It was the first time DNA was used in the United States to match two sets of antlers in a poaching case.
“That was the nail in the coffin,” Eyler said.
Forensic science is used to analyze evidence found at crime scenes, helping tell the untold story of what happened. It’s a time honored tool for police officers, but a fairly new one for wildlife cops. And it’s the wave of the future for catching poachers, wildlife officials say.
“It will continue to be a valuable tool, and probably be utilized more in investigations as techniques and capabilities improve with new science,” said Rich Palmer, director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Protection.
It was shortly after opening day of Pennsylvania’s 2009 archery deer season when Eyler got a call from a confidential informant about a 16-point buck that allegedly had been killed illegally by a 19-year-old hunter.
The officer launched an investigation and discovered the hunter was claiming to have shot the buck on opening day in Lycoming County, which is in north-central Pennsylvania.
Eyler gathered statements from folks who said the deer had been shot before the season, and not in Lycoming County.
“We were confident with the information we had, but we wanted something more concrete,” Eyler said.
As the investigation continued, a police officer in York County told Eyler he thought the buck was one he and his buddies had been chasing for several years on a farm they hunted. They had nicknamed the deer Buckzilla. York County is a good 150 miles from Lycoming County, so Eyler knew if it was the same buck, there was no way it migrated to where the hunter said he killed it.
A farmer who tills ground three-quarters of a mile from where the police officer said he’d been chasing the buck gave the officer a set of impressive sheds he’d found in one of his fields a year earlier. Even though they carried only 14 points, the sheds looked very similar to the unique 16-point rack on the head of the buck the 19-year-old said he had shot in Lycoming County.
The police officer gave the sheds to Eyler, telling him he was certain they belonged to Buckzilla.
“He and his buddies had been hunting that deer for a couple of years,” Eyler said. “They knew it pretty well.”
With that information, Eyler seized the hunter’s rack and sent it and the sheds to East Stroudsburg University’s Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory. There, laboratory director Dr. Jane Huffman took samples from both sets of antlers and confirmed Eyler’s suspicion.
“We did a DNA comparison, and they were a perfect match,” Huffman said. “The sheds came from the same deer the suspect had shot.”
With supporting testimony from a Pennsylvania Game Commission deer biologist that a whitetail would not migrate 150 miles from its home area, Eyler had solid proof the suspect lied. Faced with that hard evidence, the hunter admitted he shot the buck in York County prior to the start of bow season.
“He never gave us any details about how he killed the deer, but we got the conviction,” Eyler said.
“Unfortunately, that guy deprived that police officer and his friends of the chance of taking that magnificent trophy in a lawful manner.”
One of the primary goals of wildlife forensics is bringing to justice those who steal game from lawful hunters, said Dee Dee Hawk, director of the Wyoming Game & Fish Wildlife Forensic and Fish Health Laboratory in Laramie.
“Poaching is stealing when you’re talking about huntable species,” she said. “As the science of wildlife forensics gets better, we can make it harder for poachers to get away with their crimes.”
In 2009, wildlife forensic scientists from all over the world banded together to form the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science. There are now 52 laboratories with membership in the society, including 30 from the United States. Hawk is the organization’s president.
“Our No. 1 goal is to better the science,” she said, “to make the science better by getting people all over the world working together so we’re all on the same page.”
Laboratories that deal with forensic science pertaining to human cases are long established and well organized, she continued. By comparison, wildlife forensics labs are in their developmental years. Wildlife forensic scientists can’t simply copy what’s being done in the human labs.
“There are several things unique about wildlife forensics,” Hawk said. “The main difference is we deal with thousands of species. In the human labs, they’re dealing with one.”
Wildlife forensics is considered to have been born in 1988 when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Clark R. Bavin National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory began operating in Ashland, Ore.
“For a long time, they were the only ones doing wildlife forensics,” she said. “Everybody used to send them their evidence for testing. They got so busy, they had to stop taking state cases, and now they deal only with federal cases.”
Today there are a handful of labs around the country that do the job of nailing poachers with science. As more scientists work in the field, improvements follow.
According to Huffman, her laboratory can now provide evidence that a deer was in the back of a poacher’s truck if a wildlife conservation officer brings her just a single maggot.
“Assuming that maggot was feeding on a deer that was in the hunter’s truck, we can remove the crop from that maggot and extract DNA from that deer,” she said.
One of the pressing issues facing wildlife forensics labs is developing databases of known DNA samples. That’s necessary, Hawk said, so scientists can match samples of blood, muscle, hair, etc. — or rule out a match — with a reasonable degree of scientific certainty. It’s a question or probability, she said.
Through DNA tests, Hawk can show a speck of blood on a hunter’s jeans genetically matches a confiscated carcass. But making the match is not the end of the work. Hawk then must show it’s statistically improbable that another deer would have the same DNA. This is where the databases come in.
Because a whitetail from New Jersey is different from a whitetail from Missouri on the genetic level, Hawk said she can’t use DNA from a New Jersey deer to establish the statistical probability that two samples from a Missouri deer would match. Scientists need localized databases of DNA samples to properly compare apples to apples.
Since the Northeast Wildlife DNA Laboratory opened at East Stroudsburg University in 2005, Huffman has kept her students busy entering DNA samples collected from animals in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey into the lab’s database. Using that data, Huffman was able to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that an adult hunter had stolen a 3-point buck from a 12-year-old boy during Pennsylvania’s 2008 firearms season. It was the boy’s first deer.
The young hunter’s father had taken the deer to a butcher shop. The father had told the butcher the night before that he’d be bringing the deer by, so when the man didn’t show up the next day, the butcher called him.
The father was frantic and told the butcher he had dropped it off that morning, so the butcher called WCO Jonathan Wyant to investigate a stolen deer.
In an article that appeared in Pennsylvania Game News, Wyant admitted he thought the deer was long gone. But he promised the boy and his father that he’d keep his eyes peeled.
A few weeks after the boy’s buck was stolen, Wyant was checking a report that a local man might have some questionable deer in his possession. At the man’s house, Wyant found a buck head that had been tagged by the man’s son, but Wyant could tell the information on the tag had been altered, the article stated.
As it turned out, the man used the same butcher as the father and son. At the butcher shop, Wyant had seen a picture of the beaming boy posing with the three-point buck. The rack on that deer looked an awful lot like the one Wyant had seen in the garage.
The officer went to the suspect’s house and told him he thought the man had stolen the deer, but the man clammed up. Wyant then seized the head and called the father to see if he had anything that might still have some of the deer’s hair, blood or meat on it.
The father said the clothes he and his son had been wearing the day the boy shot the deer had been washed, but when he checked the folding knife he’d used to gut the deer, he found a chunk of tissue in the hinge.
Wyant took the knife and the deer head to Huffman, and she proved there was a 1 in 12.2 trillion chance that the material on the knife came from a deer other than the one Wyant had found in the thief’s garage.
“That case was particularly satisfying for me because it was that young man’s first deer,” she said. “I’m sure he was heartbroken when he found out it had been stolen. But we were able to get the rack back to him.”
Huffman is quick to point out that as the science of wildlife forensics has advanced in recent years, so too have the investigative skills and knowledge of conservation officers.
“Good police work is the key in these cases,” she said. “All we do is test what they bring us, so they’re the ones who do the hard work.”
According to Palmer, today’s wildlife officers are being taught more about forensic science than ever before.
“It is an evolving field,” he said. “WCOs (in Pennsylvania) are issued kits with supplies for evidence recovery that are far more advanced than they were at one time. The basic forensic science crime scene evidence recovery course is approximately five full days in the academy.”
Hawk said it was diligent police work that led to the conviction of a poacher who killed a trophy mule deer in her home state back in 2005.
During Wyoming’s hunting season that year, wildlife officers received word that a local hunter had killed a tremendous muley that many people knew of and had photographed on many occasions. The hunter had a valid tag to hunt an area just a few miles south of where the monster muley was known to live.
The suspicion was the hunter shot the buck outside the zone where he was licensed to hunt and then tagged it improperly.
When asked about the buck by an officer, the hunter was cocky, Hawk said.
“He told the officer he could even take him to the gut pile,” she said. “The officer went with him to the alleged kill site, and the officer did, indeed, see a gut pile. But there was no blood, and the guts had juniper needles in them. There wasn’t a juniper around for miles.”
So the officer took some of the guts for evidence and then headed to the area where the buck was known to live. He scoured the buck’s favorite haunts until he came upon what looked like a kill site among a stand of junipers. There was a lot of blood and some guts, but no animal. The officer collected samples from that site and sent everything to Hawk.
“We matched the samples and later matched them to the deer in the hunter’s possession, which meant the hunter had shot the deer where he didn’t have a tag and then moved the carcass and the gut pile to try to conceal the truth,” Hawk said. “I think we got $10,000 in restitution plus a conviction for that case.”
Wildlife forensics is not just about making DNA matches. Huffman said she’s often asked to identify species and the sex of an animal through minute fragments of tissue, hair, feathers or blood. She also has been called on to determine the projectile that was used to kill an animal.
It might seem like a no-brainer to look at a perfectly cylindrical hole in a deer’s hide and know that it was not killed with a broadhead. The broadhead’s blades, after all, would leave slices extending out from the center hole. But just having that knowledge about hunting equipment isn’t sufficient in court.
“Defense attorneys say, ‘Prove to me that couldn’t be a bullet hole.’ That’s where a lab like ours comes in,” Huffman said. “We can show, scientifically, the differences in the way a broadhead goes through a hide compared to a bullet.”
A bullet will singe animal hair when it passes through a hide. Huffman once debunked a hunter’s claim that he had killed a trophy buck during archery season with an arrow tipped with a field point by finding burnt hairs around the entry hole. “You’re not going to find any arrow out there that does that,” she said.
Huffman and Hawk both joke they fear the science they practice one day might put them out of business.
“The time might come when all an officer has to do is say, ‘Don’t make me take this evidence to the DNA lab,’ and the poacher will confess right there,” Huffman said. “It’s hard to put up a defense against the kind of evidence we’re coming up with.”
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