How to catch a poacher


The Dustbuster vacuum bag arrived in the mail to the wildlife forensic laboratory in Laramie. 

Game wardens in Missouri had vacuumed out a truck when it crossed the border, looking for evidence of a pronghorn poaching in Wyoming. They didn’t find anything. The Dustbuster bag felt like a Hail Mary. 

So Kim Frazier, then-program manager of the lab, sifted through the contents. Inside she found a single pronghorn hair. She extracted the DNA before Dee Dee Hawk, one of the lab’s founders, ran test after test to see if it matched their other piece of evidence: a bloody piece of clothing.

Days before, on a hot day in June, someone had called the Wyoming Game and Fish Department about a pronghorn carcass spotted in the back of a truck in Cheyenne. By the time the wildlife officials got involved, three men had disposed of the carcass and the head in a local dump, changed in their hotel room, cleaned their truck and headed back home to Missouri. 

Law enforcement needed to know if that hair from the truck matched blood from the hotel room and the carcass from the dump. If it did, they had a case. If not, back to the drawing board. 

That pronghorn hair marked one of the many forensic wildlife clues and cases in Hawk’s career, which spanned from 1996 to 2021. She took over the nascent lab with backing from the department to “go forth and do good things,” she said. More than 20 years later, she retired, leaving Frazier in charge of one of the only state wildlife forensic labs in the country, and one of even fewer accredited ones. 

In the last fiscal year alone, the lab in Laramie ran more than 16,000 tests from 13 states resulting in almost $55,000 in fines and restitution. Its experts have sorted through and collected samples from almost every imaginable object: sink drains, knives, circular saws, hatchets, antlers, bear claws, pants and more than one undergarment. 

“We’re scientists and impartial, whether it convicts them or not,” Hawk said. “We want to make sure the science works. We want to come up with an answer.”

Hawk recently received the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science’s inaugural Hawk and Espinoza Lifetime Achievement Award, named after herself and the organization’s co-founder. It’s a recognition that formalizes Hawk’s dedication to a lesser-known kind of wildlife science, the kind that, combined with hours, days and often weeks of painstaking investigation by wardens, can lead to the arrest and conviction of those who commit some of the worst crimes against wildlife. 

In 1995, Hawk was working in Cheyenne as a chemist for the public health lab. She analyzed blood and urine to check for drugs and alcohol. It was a fine job, but not really her area of interest. So when a position opened for a fish health job at Game and Fish, she applied. She wasn’t hired. But the agency did ask her about another job it was considering, one that required someone who could understand the law enforcement side of science and recognize the crucial significance of logging evidence properly and leaving a clear chain of custody. 

Hawk didn’t hesitate applying, and was hired. 

The Wyoming Game and Fish Research Lab, as it was called at the time, was in its infancy. Its experts aged teeth, worked on fish health and determined time of wildlife death.

As the lab’s leader, Hawk scraped and begged for money to begin buying equipment. She went to trainings in Canada, Colorado and at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife forensic lab in Ashland, Oregon. She developed the ability for the lab to compare DNA from a piece of meat in a freezer to a carcass in the field, first in deer, elk and moose, then in pronghorn, bighorn sheep and a handful of other species. 

Today, the Wildlife Forensic and Fish Health Lab can not only match meat from a freezer to a carcass — or a bit of flesh on a backpack to a set of antlers — but experts in Laramie can also determine the sex of the animal and the species. Fish health is also a large part of the job for experts at the lab, as is tooth aging. 

Most wildlife investigation work is still done by boots-on-the-ground detectives, Hawks said. But the lab connects the dots between evidence, and it offers it in the form of DNA, one of the most concrete bits of proof. 

“We definitely close cases that wouldn’t have been otherwise,” said Scott Edberg, Game and Fish’s deputy chief of wildlife. “In many instances, it brings the worst of the worst, the true 1% hard-core poacher, to the legal system.”

The Wildlife Forensic and Fish Health Lab moved a few years ago from its cramped home in the Biological Sciences building on the University of Wyoming’s campus to a much larger space in Laramie’s Game and Fish office. Inside, through locked doors, is a spotless lab with sprawling white countertops, refrigerators, computers and machines designed to spin and separate DNA. 

Inside the walk-in freezer are about 35,000 tissue samples, each in its own labeled tube to identify the case. The computers contain databases, for example, the headless carcass one, which stores DNA from every headless animal body found and submitted from Wyoming and three other states. When heads are discovered, and wardens suspect poaching, they can run the head’s DNA through the database. About 700 carcasses populate the system right now. Two have been matched to a head, but the information will live on forever. 

The counters are where lab experts sort through whatever bit of evidence comes their way from any of the 13 states. Some, like a bucket of sand with blood intermixed, are impossible to extract viable DNA from. Others lead to results, like a black bear carcass they received about a dozen years ago.

That was when a group of men poached a bull elk from a hard-to-draw area of Colorado. They gutted it and loaded the creature in the back of their truck. Later that morning, as they walked out of a café, they saw a black bear munching on their elk. 

The men tried shooing the bear away, and when it refused to leave, one of the men with a bear license shot the creature. A warden arrived to tag the bear, but noticed something seemed off about their story about the elk. The warden kept the bear — in Colorado, if a bear is killed because it was aggressive to humans, it’s kept as evidence — and sent the hunters on their way. 

Not long after, someone found the gut pile from that elk, and the warden thought back to those men. But they’d already left the state. He didn’t have an elk to match to the guts. Then he remembered the bear. So he brought in the entire carcass to the lab, hoping its technicians could match saliva or tissue.

“I thought, there’s no way in hell this will ever work,” Hawk said. “But once we found the tissue, we thought, ‘maybe.’”

And it did. Elk tissue from under the bear’s claws matched DNA from the elk guts in the field. The warden had the evidence he needed for a search warrant to seize and test DNA from the bull’s antlers, leading to a conviction. 

Frazier and Hawk were thrilled they found DNA under the bear’s claws. Generally, they don’t know much more about a case than the basic forensic information. But sometimes, they’re interested in how the case ends. 

Like the pronghorn poachers in Cheyenne. The forensic experts learned after they matched the hair to blood on the clothing that the men had shot the pronghorn with a .22 and loaded it in their truck still alive. When they went to dump it for fear of being caught, the animal kicked and scraped, leaving blood on the men’s clothing before meeting its ultimate demise. 

In the hands of the lab team, that blood drew a straight line to a hair from a Dustbuster bag, connecting dots and bringing yet another batch of poachers to justice.