Monday, February 6th, 2023
Monday, February 6th, 2023

Breaking News for

Sportsmen Since 1967

CSI Ohio: Deer DNA helps bust poachers

By Frank Hinchey Contributing Writer

DNA evidence is a tool commonly used in today’s modern law
enforcement community to help solve murders and other violent
crimes.

But, forensic science is not exclusive to the human world.

The DNR Division of Wildlife is adding deer DNA “fingerprinting”
to its crime-fighting arsenal.

The wildlife division supplied the Wyoming Game and Fish
laboratory with 100 samples of tissue from white-tailed deer
gathered from Ohio’s 88 counties to create a DNA database for
criminal investigations, said Jim Quinlivan, enforcement training
administrator for the division.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is genetic material found in all
living things. In recent years, wildlife scientists have developed
techniques to use DNA analysis to identify certain species of
animals from tissue and blood samples.

The Ohio deer tissue submitted to the Wyoming lab was collected
during the past winter by wildlife officers, who recorded the date
and location of the samples, from hunter-killed or road-killed
deer.

The lab, on the campus of the University of Wyoming in Laramie,
is a recognized leader in wildlife forensics, Quinlivan said. The
wildlife division now has an agreement with the Wyoming lab to
create a white-tailed deer database to give investigations “super
credibility” in Ohio courts, he said.

The lab set up the database for free and allows the Division of
Wildlife to submit up to six tissue samples per case at a cost of
about $350.

“It is not outrageous,” Quinlivan said of the cost, noting that
as more wildlife agencies use the technology nationwide, “it should
get simpler, better and cheaper.”

Deer tissue samples in the Ohio database will give investigators
a reference “of what an Ohio white-tailed deer is without
question,” Quinlivan said. “Our goal is to take a look at a lot of
evidence and trace it back to a particular animal.”

Lab comparisons of collected deer tissue samples will help
investigators possibly match evidence of a white-tailed deer from
one location to evidence collected at another site, he said.

“We view this as a process and tool we can have available to our
officers and investigators if needed, where forensic evidence may
make the difference,” Quinlivan said. “I also think that all
law-abiding hunters and sportsmen and women would want us to use
every tool or method available to conserve our state’s wildlife
resources.”

The Wyoming lab plans to set up the white-tailed deer database
to coincide with the state’s five wildlife districts, so that each
district has its own database, said lab Director Dee Dee Hawk.

“We can match a carcass abandoned in the field to a head in a
garage, or say a blood spot on a knife came from the head and
carcass,” she said.

The Wyoming lab is using the database now to assist the Division
of Wildlife in a whitetail deer poaching investigation in the Akron
district, Quinlivan said.

Quinlivan also foresees the potential to use DNA evidence on
other species, as the need arises. In addition to all the deer
species, the Wyoming lab has databases on moose, elk, big horn
sheep, mountain lion, mountain goat, turkey, and black bear and is
looking into doing a database for bobcats, Hawk said.

In addition to Ohio, the Wyoming lab has contracts with Colorado
and Utah, Hawk said. The lab also works with about a dozen states’
law enforcement agencies on a case-by-case basis, she said.

The Wyoming lab has been doing some form of wildlife forensic
analysis for about 35 years. In fiscal 2003, the lab conducted
nearly 5,000 analysis on samples for 58 law enforcement cases,
including testing meat and blood, and examining hair and feathers,
antlers, heads, and bones.

Until about three years ago, the National Fish and Wildlife
Laboratory in Ashland, Ore., assisted in some state cases but has
temporarily stopped doing state casework because of a backlog of
cases, Hawk said.

The federal lab, which opened in 1988, is considered the only
full-service crime lab in the world devoted to wildlife law
enforcement.

In 2003, the federal lab assisted the Ohio wildlife division to
successfully prosecute two deer poachers in Warren County by using
DNA analysis by linking blood on the hunters’ all-purpose vehicles
to an illegally harvested 9-point buck.

“More and more, the courts are going to require forensic
evidence in wildlife cases and (require it) being done by
accredited crime labs,” said Ken Goddard, director of the federal
lab.

In Ohio’s Warren County case, the DNA evidence was a waste of
taxpayers’ money, said defense attorney David Chicarelli of
Franklin, Ohio.

“The (wildlife) agents caught (the perpetrators) after they got
the deer, and they admitted to taking the deer,” he said.
“(Wildlife agents) found some blood, and it was deer blood. As a
taxpayer, I was thinking ‘why are you doing a DNA analysis?’ The
whole case was blown out proportion.”

In October, Ohio wildlife officers successfully used DNA
evidence to convict a hunter of poaching a deer in Preble County.
The hunter had claimed an untagged deer carcass found on his
property was killed in nearby Indiana. Blood and tissue samples
collected from a known Ohio location where the hunter frequented
and from his residence were sent to Therion International, a small
forensics laboratory in Saragota Springs, N.Y., for analysis. The
lab’s findings confirmed that the hunter’s untagged deer carcass
and deer remains found at the Ohio hunting site were from the same
animal.

Therion also helped police in Uniontown, Pa., solve the murder
of a deer hunter that had gone cold in 1997.

The lab was able to establish that DNA from frozen venison taken
from a suspect’s residence in 1998, genetically matched deer tissue
at the murder scene. The hunter was convicted and sentenced in
December to life in prison.

According to a report in the Tribune-Review newspaper of
Uniontown, District Attorney Nancy Vernon said the slaying was the
first she knew of nationally that was solved by using deer DNA.

Ohio Division of Wildlife furbearer biologist Chris Dwyer is
watching with interest other forensic techniques and wildlife
studies, such as the role of strontium, a naturally occurring
isotope, and how it can be used to track geographic movements of
animals and investigate crimes.

“We would like to keep track of geographic locations of otters,”
Dwyer said. “Strontium could tell us that an otter trapped in
eastern Ohio came from western Ohio. A lot of the science is out
there to make smart decisions.”

In Wisconsin, geologists at the University of Wisconsin tested
antler samples for strontium to help federal wildlife investigators
catch a hunter who had claimed he killed a deer in Michigan when in
fact it had been poached in Wisconsin.

The first-of-its-kind findings in a criminal investigation
showed that the strontium found in the antlers of the suspected
illegally killed deer matched strontium levels found in bedrock
near Portage, Wis.

University of Wisconsin geologist Brian Beard said unlike the
DNA method where a large database has to first be established, the
strontium method is handy because the database already exists from
decades of research.

Share on Social

Facebook
Twitter
LinkedIn
Email

Hand-Picked For You

Related Articles