November 11, 2010
With hunting season in full swing, the Maine Warden Service is, again, busy making sure everyone in the woods plays by the rules. Game wardens say the only things that seem to change when it comes to illegal hunting are the methods and technology poachers are using. But I found out it's not just poachers who have expanded their methods.
Often times it starts with a gunshot heard at night. Followed by a call to the Maine Warden Service tip line by a neighbor. By the time a game warden gets to the scene there's nothing left but a gut pile or a carcass. The culprit may think they've gotten away when the meat from the illegal shoot is safely tucked away in their freezer.
But the poachers are not out of the woods quite yet, thanks to a cooperative effort between the wardens service and the folks here at the Orono Wildlife Forensics DNA Lab on the campus of the University of Maine. Their job? Match DNA from a crime scene to a suspect.
Dr. Irv Kornfield, a professor of biology & molecular forensics at UMaine, runs the lab. "This shoe was part of the evidence we received from the wardens service and it was seized at the house of a suspect," says Dr. Kornfield. "And what we found was a tiny bit of blood on the outside over here and we were able to extract sufficient dna to characterize it and compare it to the sample that the wardens were interested in."
The work they do here is identical to the work done at the Maine State Police Crime Lab only the victims in these cases usually have four legs. "But the techniques that we use and the protocols we follow and the proficiency and so on that we do is exactly the same kind of thing. DNA is DNA."
Those working for the Maine Warden Service say this partnership has been an enormous help catching poachers that might have otherwise gotten away. "And 15, 18 years ago wildlife DNA was the exception and that was for our most high priority cases, it was a big deal," says Captain Dan Scott of the Maine Warden Service.
Scott says before they used the forensics lab at UMaine wardens had to send their samples all the way across the country to a lab in Ashland, Oregon to be processed. "Just because of their limited resources and the whole country using them at the time, time was always a factor," says Captain Scott. "And getting your results back so that we could use them in our court cases was sometimes an issue."
This year, for the first time ever, Maine wardens will carry around these DNA collection kits designed by Dr. Kornfield. "This kit works fine for anything. We can do moose, deer, bear, and turkey in terms of matching and then identify virtually any animal in the world," says Dr. Kornfield.
Dr. Kornfield has trained members of the warden service how to properly collect blood, tissue, and hair samples from the scene of an illegal kill. "Our wardens, when they have evidence to be processed are able to go right to the lab, meet with Dr. Kornfield face to face. Tell him what they have, what the circumstances of the case is," says Scott.
It's not just illegal kills that the staff here can help with. A quick check in a suspects freezer can tell a lot about where the meat inside came from. "On the other hand if we go through a lot of material in the freezer it might turn out that a fellow has 15 different deer and 3 or four moose and you name it," says Kornfield.
In addition to the number of animals they can also determine whether the animals are male or female and even tell wardens the time of death. "We were able to assist the wardens service in estimating when an individual animal died. It's in interest to respect to night hunting or hunting on a holiday or something."
This lab is helping authorities keep up with the poachers who, wardens say, have quite a few tricks up their sleeves. "Similar to how we as law enforcement use technology, the violators also use technology. we see a lot of cameras," says Scott. "They're able to communicate with each other on cell phones and via texting and so forth and that makes our job more difficult. But we use every tool we have in our tool box."