DALLAS — There are several factors that motivate poachers to kill wildlife illegally, and there’s numerous techniques the Pennsylvania Game Commission employs to catch them.
Those techniques were highlighted during a wildlife forensics program last week at the Game Commission’s Northeast Region Office, complete with a field demonstration from the agency’s newest “investigator”.
“When people kill wildlife they’re stealing from all of us,” said Bill Williams, the information and education supervisor for the Northeast Region. “This isn’t the ethical hunter, but that element of society that just has to kill.”
Williams said the illegal killing of wildlife is a $2 billion industry worldwide, second only to the drug trade. But money isn’t the only reason that motivates people to poach, he said, adding that some people simply get a thrill out of killing something and others can’t resist the temptation to shoot a trophy animal.
No matter what the reason, Williams said the agency employs some “high-tech” means to catch poachers, much like the techniques seen on popular television shows.
It all begins with evidence collection at the crime scene - blood, hair, tissue, shell casings and anything else left behind.
“We send samples to the DNA lab at East Stroudsburg University, and they can do a lot of tests for us,” Williams said. “The lab can determine species, gender, match blood samples from the scene with those found in a suspect’s vehicle and even determine the number of individual animals in a blood sample.”
The agency can also conduct computer and phone analysis to track down a culprit and even X-ray evidence with the help of local veterinarians.
But Williams said blood samples are the basis for a successful investigation.
He cited a case not too long ago where a person shot a bear in their backyard over bait. The suspect said he shot the bear in the woods and it ran to his house and died, but blood samples at the scene determined that wasn’t the case.
“Our officer analyzed the blood splatter and was able to determine the direction the bear was moving after it was shot,” Williams said. “It was shot at the house and walked away toward the woods, and we filed charges.”
Time of death is another key component to solving a wildlife crime. This usually factors into game, such as deer or bear, that was shot before the season opened.
A live animal, Williams said, has a pupil that is perfectly round and reflects light, even when it was recently killed. Every hour after the animal died, however, the pupil narrows. Game Commission officers also check body temperature of the animal and even analyze the live stage of any flies present to determine when it was killed.
Ballistic evidence is another key component of an investigation. The agency analyzes the rifling marks on a bullet or the firing pin marks on a primer to match it to a specific firearm, and they also examine wounds on the animal to determine type of firearm and even distance from which it was shot.
To do all that, however, PGC officers need to find any shell casings left at the scene.
To help that cause, the agency has enlisted three canines into its law enforcement duties. The dogs are assigned to a special handler and each covers two regions in the state. In the northeast, special investigator Dave Allen and his 6-month old yellow lab, Skye, will be helping officer’s with their cases in the form of evidence detection, locating wildlife and even tracking suspects or lost hunters.
During last week’s presentation, Allen took Skye into a nearby field to demonstrate what the canine can do. It took Skye only a few minutes to find a few shell casings that were planted in the field by Williams, and she later located the trail of a person that walked into the nearby woods.
“She never loses the drive and she’ll keep going,” Allen said.
Skye’s work impressed the packed crowd, including Jim Fazzi of Wyoming. Fazzi said he used to train police dogs and thought Skye did a good job for a 6-month-old canine.
“You see the benefit that having a dog can bring,” Fazzi said. “To find those shell casings will be a huge help to officers.”
The forensics presentation attracted a large crowd, which has been the norm for the monthly PGC programs, and Williams said another one is planned for September and a topic will be announced soon.