DNA testing is revolutionary tool for hunting investigators

Kim Frazier can’t hide her delight in retelling the story of the bear that helped investigators crack a Colorado poaching case. She’s director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Forensic & Fish Health Laboratory, which does DNA testing for more than a dozen state wildlife agencies including Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Our favorite case is the bear that solved the elk poaching case,” she said. Frazier said hunters had illegally harvested an elk in the wrong area and put it in their truck. “A bear got in the back of their truck and was eating their elk,” she said. The hunters shot the bear in defense of their property, and called a Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer who collected the bear and put it in a freezer. After the hunters went back to their home state, the officer determined the elk was poached, but didn’t have enough evidence to get a search warrant. “But then he remembered he had the bear in his freezer,” Frazier said. “We were able to get elk tissue from the bear’s claws and match it to the gut pile where the elk was killed in the wrong area.” It was just another case closed thanks to the relatively new use of DNA evidence as a forensic tool in wildlife investigations. But in this case it involved some interspecies assistance from a bruin able to pitch in even after its untimely end. DNA has played a pivotal role in numerous memorable Colorado cases in the last few decades, not all of them as amusing to investigators as the bear-elk incident. One of the most notorious was the case investigators worked on about a decade ago in which an outfitting company owned by Christopher Loncarich of Mack captured and maimed lions and bobcats in western Colorado and eastern Utah to make it easier for clients to kill them. Wildlife investigators called it one of the most disturbing cases they’d ever seen. DNA evidence “played a big part in that case, for sure,” said Rich Antonio, a CPW investigator.
Deer antlers and a pronghorn skull and antlers confiscated as part of a poaching investigation by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers. (Photo courtesy of CPW)
More recently, DNA evidence was central to an investigation that began in Moffat County in 2018 and resulted in a juvenile and two men entering guilty pleas in a case in which multiple deer were illegally killed. That case began with a tip about a dead deer in the back of a vehicle driven by a 17-year-old juvenile. They then learned the poached deer was hidden in a rented storage shed, but it was removed from there before they could recover it. But investigators sent blood samples from the truck and shed to the Wyoming lab, which determined the samples almost certainly came from the same deer. That broke open a case that also involved a burglary on a property where the carcasses of eight decaying buck deer carcasses ultimately were found. Advancements over decades Antonio has been an investigator for 15 years and was a field officer for CPW for 12 years before that, and marvels at how much of a role DNA has come to play in many agency investigations during his time with the agency. “I think in my time, in those 27 years, it’s changed quite a bit,” he said. When he started out, investigations often leaned heavily on things such as interviews and getting confessions. Had investigators been working on the recent Moffat County case early in Antonio’s career, about all they could have confirmed is that the blood collected in the truck and shed came from a deer, he said. “The fact that now we can narrow that down to an individual animal is pretty earthshaking stuff for us,” Antonio said. “For most of our crimes, there’s no witnesses, so having the ability to do that (DNA analysis) is super-duper important to our work now.” Over time, the cost of DNA and related work has come down, the technology and accuracy have improved and the use of DNA analysis by CPW investigators has expanded, Antonio said. He said that initially CPW had its own lab doing such work, but after the agency’s forensics person retired the agency contracted with the Laramie, Wyoming lab in 2018 for its forensics work. “They’re actually our longest-standing contract,” Frazier said of CPW. Statistical certainty
Tasha Bauman, Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Forensic Program Manager, conducting DNA testing. (Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife).
Over time, one thing CPW has worked to do is get the lab 20 baseline samples for various species from each of its game management units, Antonio said. This lets the lab establish localized species genotypes that strengthen its statistical calculations. That way, when it matches lab samples to a specific animal through DNA, it sometimes can say the chance is one in a hundred billion that another animal in the same population would have the same genetic profile. Frazier said when the lab receives samples to analyze, it can determine what species the samples came from, how many animals the samples represent and their sex. The latter can be important in cases such as determining if someone legally shot a male or female animal under their hunting license. Frazier has worked for the lab for more than 20 years, and the lab dates back nearly 30 years. Newer technology now lets the lab to amplify portions of DNA from trace amounts, allowing it to work from samples as small as a blood spot or a couple of hairs. Previously an investigation might have required waiting an entire year for the next hunting season to see if a suspect returned to commit another violation, whereas now DNA might more quickly lead to cracking a case. DNA also has helped CPW solve cold cases. “DNA lasts a long time,” Antonio said. Investigators might be able to pull DNA evidence from something like a mounted head years later, he said. A priority in some cases Antonio said juries these days, having watched television shows such as “CSI,” also expect investigators to present DNA evidence as part of their investigation, “so for the most part we will look at (DNA) in a case, especially if we’re going to go through that court process.” From June 1, 2018, to May 31, 2019, CPW sent 14 cases to the lab, involving 99 samples and more than 3,000 tests. He said bigger, felony-type cases and cases that otherwise can’t be solved by CPW almost always will include some DNA analysis. DNA played a “phenomenal” role in the Loncarich case, such as by being able to match DNA at kill sites to individual animals and show that an animal taken using a Colorado license was killed in Utah, or vice versa, Antonio said. He said lions and bobcats were trapped and held before being released ahead of hunts by clients. “We were able to match DNA to some traps and back to cats,” Antonio said. The conviction led to Loncarich receiving a 27-month federal prison sentence and some of his family members and others also being sentenced for their roles. DNA was instrumental a few years ago in an investigation in the Montrose area regarding killing of deer after the deer-hunting seasons had closed, and the deers’ heads being cut off. Officials got a tip through the Operation Game Thief program about a single poached deer and got a search warrant. That led to the discovery of deer heads that could be matched to headless carcasses found in fields. Olathe resident Hayden Barnard was apprehended in that case and fined $10,000. It was a case that started out with authorities having one illegally killed deer and led to the discovery of multiple poached deer, a poached bear, a poached elk and poached bobcats, Antonio said. He thinks the investigation took the course it did “I wouldn’t say 100 percent because of DNA but I would say 95 percent because of DNA that we were able to obtain and match back.” DNA collected in a truck proved important in investigating a case in which two men illegally killed at least three deer and six pronghorn in the Limon area in 2017, leaving the torsos of some and shipping heads to a taxidermist in Florida for mounting. Other emerging tools Other technological advancements can contribute at times to CPW investigations. For example, GPS technology in a suspect’s cell phone might link photos of a harvested animal taken on the phone to a location where the animal was suspected of being illegally killed. Accessing cell phone data typically requires providing probable cause to obtain a search warrant, although Ken Shew, a CPW investigator, said that at times hunters consent to such a search. He noted that cell phone data also can show a hunter killed the animal in a legal area. “It not only proves guilt but it can show innocence for the defendant also if we’re able to retrieve GPS location information,” Shew said. Sometimes, photos and information posted on websites and social media can aid investigators, in yet another tool that only became available to them in recent decades. Last year a Vernal, Utah, man pleaded guilty and was sentenced for possessing prohibited, non-native sheep on his private hunting ranch near Dinosaur. The man, Michael Gates, imported exotic sheep for clients to hunt, CPW said. The investigation got started thanks to a tip from someone who saw a social media post of illegal sheep Gates brought to the ranch. That incident and so many others underscore the value of tips even at a time of so many technological advancements in investigative approaches. Shew said ethical hunters are extremely helpful in notifying investigators via means such as Operation Game Thief. The program pays rewards to people who turn in poachers, even anonymously. Tips may be submitted by calling 1-877-COLO-OGT, dialing #OGT on Verizon cell phones or emailing game.thief@state.co.us. Said Antonio, “Without the public’s help and those anonymous tips we would be in a world of hurt, our wildlife would be in a world of hurt, so it’s super-important.” OTHER DNA USES DNA remains the most important advancement for wildlife investigations and a number of unique cases illustrate its importance and versatility. DNA evidence is sometimes used to determine culpability by wildlife rather than humans. This can occur in cases involving attacks on people. After a bear attacked and injured a 71-year-old man in his home in Pine, Colo., last summer, officials euthanized a bear found nearby and Colorado Parks and Wildlife was able to use DNA testing to confirm it had human DNA under its claws. Likewise, after CPW euthanized two lions near where a lion attacked and injured an 8-year-old boy in Bailey last summer, DNA from one of the lions was matched to lion hair samples collected off the boy, confirming that officials had euthanized the attacking animal. DNA plays a lot of non-forensic roles in CPW as well. For example, it was used to confirm the presence of a wolf pack in Moffat County earlier this year, is a tool used in monitoring for invasive zebra and quagga mussels in state waters, and has contributed to efforts to establish rainbow trout in Colorado that are resistant to whirling disease. It also has been shown effective in estimating greater sage-grouse numbers through a method involving analyzing DNA of fecal droppings collected over time and matching the droppings to individual birds.