LARAMIE, Wyo. — With a DNA analyzer, high tech microscopes and blood typing equipment straight out of an episode of the television series "CSI," the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WGFD) lab in Laramie is one of the premier wildlife forensic labs in the country.
Every year the lab helps enforcement officials from seven western states prosecute those who take the states' resources unlawfully.
Lab director DeeDee Hawk said the WGFD Wildlife Forensic and Fish Health Lab tests literally thousands of pieces of fish, big game and trophy game mammal evidence each year as it strives to protect resources.
"What sets us apart from a human crime lab is that with humans you have one species to test for (human blood, bone, hair etc.). We have 18 different species of big game we test for (elk, deer, bear, etc.)"
Hawk said the lab is divided into three separate parts — wildlife forensics, fish health and the aging of big game teeth.
Wildlife forensics is defined as using science to assist with law enforcement, Hawk explains.
"So, basically what we do is receive evidence from game wardens and investigators. Depending on what their question is, what they're trying to answer, will determine what kinds of tests we do."
Typically the lab tests for species identification first.
"If we receive a head, we obviously don't have to do species identification. But if it's blood on a knife or meat from a freezer or a gut pile with nothing attached to it, we'll have to determine what species the sample originated from," Hawk said.
Lab personnel use protein-based analysis for species identification first, then if needed they can go to DNA testing.
"The DNA testing is significantly more expensive," Hawk explained. "To best utilize our limited resources we do the simplest first. The protein-based is completely accurate so we're not sacrificing any accuracy but we do whatever we can the cheapest way."
Hawk said that, while there are cases where they only have to do the species identification, most of the time that is just the beginning of the forensic adventure.
"Ninety percent of our cases involve a DNA match. So we'll use the DNA test to say this gut pile in this closed area matches the meat in the freezer and the head hanging on the wall — they all came from the same animal. Then the game warden can go in and charge the person with trespassing, taking the animal out of season or whatever they are looking at."
Hawk said often the lab is testing just a couple of pieces of evidence, but there are some cases that involve a multitude of individual samples.
In the case of a human attack/death in a wildlife confrontation, as in the rash of bear-human confrontations last year, the lab attempts to perform their forensic work in less than 24 hours to determine if a captured bear is indeed the bear involved in the attack. Hawk said the time limit is because a captured bear is often being held in a bear trap and Game & Fish does not want the bear to have to stay in the trap any longer than necessary.
Hawk said the lab personnel do not go into the field themselves to collect evidence very often.
"On rare occasions where they have a lot of evidence, we will assist a game warden with collection," she said.
"If the person has been killed, they will attend the autopsy or they will send an 'evidence collection kit' to the autopsy that has instructions and collection material. All regions have CHICK kits (Carnivore Human Interaction Collection Kits) that contain a kit to collect evidence from the scene — evidence which may include a sleeping bag, a tent, hair from a tree, etc. —from the victim and from the suspect bear. That evidence is brought to the laboratory from law enforcement and we move forward from there."
In the fish health lab, Hawk said they have two main duties to perform — inspections and diagnostics.
Inspections deal with testing the fish hatcheries that supply trout and other species to stock the lakes, ponds and rivers in the state. These inspections are mandated by the state legislature
"We go into the state hatcheries once a year and collect kidney and spleen samples from the fish at each one of the hatcheries. If it's a brood station we also collect ovarian samples from eggs during spawning."
The samples are brought back to the lab to test for viruses, parasites and bacteria.
"Our goal is to insure that all of the fish in the hatchery are healthy and that they are not carrying any diseases before we stock them out into the natural waters. We don't want to stock anything that might have a disease that would be detrimental to the native populations."
Most of the fish health investigations are done from February to June when fish are spawning, said Brandon Taro, fish health program manager at the lab. He said he gets a lot of windshield time, traveling about 25,000 miles each year to collect fish samples from the state's hatcheries, adding with a laugh, "But I get to see some beautiful places."
Many of those trips he can't really schedule since the fish are on their own spawning schedule. He said when the hatchery calls that the fish are running, he throws his gear in the truck and hits the road.
Taro said one of the diseases he is in the middle of testing for currently is whirling disease. For this test, he removes cartilage from the fish.
Taro added that there are fish from Germany being genetically modified to make them more resistant to whirling disease, but the modification hasn't been particularly successful since those fish seem to be more susceptible to other problems.
Because of the need to move fish and/or eggs around within the lab, Taro said they have to test the fish samples they take very quickly. "Everything has to turn around in 21-28 days, so we're always (at the lab) on weekends during Feb. to June."
While the inspection duties at the lab deal with state hatchery facilities, the diagnostic portion of the fish health lab deals with both WGFD facilities and wild caught fish.
Taro said he finds the investigative part of his job fascinating — "You have this dead fish and you're trying to put the story together. I'm always learning something new."
Many times the investigation leads not to a medical issue but an environmental issue — a large fish kill due to high water temperatures or the runoff from a burn area.
The Wyoming Legislature requires the lab to inspect the state's fisheries and hatcheries each year, Hawk said.
"And we are required to be certified by the American Fisheries Society — certification means one year of experience and a national board certification test," Hawk said. "There are only about 80 people in the whole country who have that certification and we have three of them here in this lab. It's a pretty elite group of scientists and we're proud to have them here."
Hawk said wildlife forensics and fish health are the biggest portions of the lab's work, with big game teeth aging taking up a smaller part of their resources.
"The aging of big game teeth is used for herd demographics. Those numbers all go back to the biologists and they use them to set seasons," Hawk said.
The WGFD biologists determine which herds they want to investigate and then send hunters who draw those areas a box to collect teeth from their kills. Some teeth are also collected by WGFD personnel at hunter check stations.
About 2,000 to 3,000 teeth are analyzed each year.
Hawk said the lab, located on the University of Wyoming campus, has contracts with five other states — Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa and Illinois — to do their wildlife forensic lab work for a fee which pays for the tests they request.
Because of their specialized expertise, Hawk said the group at the lab may be small but their knowledge base is immense.
"In every instance in this lab, we are the only one in the state, so there's nobody else in the state that does what we do in this lab. If we want to consult with someone else we must go outside the state."
Since their wildlife forensic expertise is so specialized, Hawk said in 2009 they worked with other wildlife forensic scientists in the country and started a Society for Wildlife Science. Hawk is the current president, and Frazier is executive secretary of one of the working committees. The society meets every three years to exchange information.
"Because it's such a small group of scientists, it's really, really helpful for us to meet every three years to bring those scientists together to exchange information."
The group works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Forensic Lab in Ashland, Oregon.
"Through the society we've produced a best practices document to help all wildlife forensic laboratories, including small labs and labs just getting started. And to also help the judicial system understand our science a little better."
Hawk said she and other members of the lab are called on from time to time to testify at a trial, though usually by the time the evidence is analyzed and they can prove conclusively a crime has been committed, the accused is willing to settle the issue out of court.
"We don't testify often — in my 18 years I've probably only testified 10, 11 times. A lot of times they see our results and they'll plead guilty or they see our results and stipulate to a different defense." She added with a laugh, "We get subpoenas a lot but we don't often have to go."
Hawk said the lab investigates about 100 poaching incidents each year
"Some of those cases might be two pieces of evidence, or they might be 100 pieces of evidence. We usually run between 800 and 1,100 pieces of evidence in a year."
Hawk said the lab personnel don't get to know a lot of the case information until there is a resolution.
"There's always a question of bias in the courtroom so we try not to learn any of that until the case is all said and done. Then we get all the fun stuff."
Hawk said sometimes cases take a year or more to resolve, and not all end in a conviction.
"Probably about half end in a conviction — I don't have any hard facts on that but just a feel for the type of responses we get back from our game wardens.
"Sometimes we actually prove that the suspect is innocent, that they are telling the truth. It's not often, but it happens
"And sometimes there's just not enough biological material present to make a case."
Hawk said Wyoming is the lab's largest customer, with Montana a close second and the other four states farther down the list.
Funding for the lab, as with the entire Wyoming Game and Fish Department, comes primarily from hunters and anglers themselves, from the fees they pay for licenses.