DNA Catching Illegal Hunters Part 2 

Thousands of hunters take to the Maine woods every year in search of that trophy deer. But not everyone plays by the rules. This is a busy time of year for the Maine Warden Service.Dozens of cases pass through wildlife forensic lab in Orono every year. Dan Dendanto has been here for 10 years and has worked on more than 70 poaching cases. “For me, I’ve always wanted to work in conservation and I see this as an integral part of that and preserving the wildlife for future generations,” he says.Dendanto says some cases can be tough. “Blood stains that might have been subjected to the weather. Perhaps something that was taken out of the back of a pick-up truck, a gut pile in the woods, hairs, blood on leaves, from a blood trail in the woods. These things can be more difficult to get useable high quality DNA from.” Analysts get case work from all over the country. This lab at UMaine does all the wildlife forensics work for New Hampshire, and some work from states as far away as Michigan and Wisconsin.Dendanto showed us the evidence room, where meat and blood samples are stored in this locked freezer. “This case here, this one is taken from the state of New Hampshire. This one has not been processed yet but just gives you another idea. These are pieces of sample that have been removed either from a carcass or from someone’s freezer bag and in this case they have three samples that are here.”The challenge? To take these small samples and figure out the species and sex of the animal. The results he comes up with could mean help decide whether an accused poacher is ultimately charged and convicted. “So what I see from my test samples is that item a was derived from a male, in this case deer, where I have both the X & Y chromosome and item B was derived from a female so we were able to stop the case at this point. They were looking to see if item a matched item band in this particular case they’re from different sexed animals so we know they don’t match. They’re not from the same animal.”Dendanto says he’s only had to testify in court once. In the other cases, the defendants admitted his findings were correct. But the analysts don’t just prove people are guilty. They’ve also cleared a few hunters. “But it’s always nice when someone who might be falsely accused or the evidence just isn’t there and someone gets off,” DenDanto says. “That’s always a good feeling. Those are my sort of feel good cases if you will.”Folks at the forensics lab know poaching will likely always be around. They just hope their work will put a dent in that number. “We can in fact, if given material, we can determine whether things match or they don’t match and if hunters are going out and performing activities that are illegal they should well know that there’s a good chance that we can demonstrate that fact,” says Dr. Irv Kornfield who runs the Orono lab. “People do realize that that technology is out there,” says Captain Dan Scott of the Maine Warden Service. “We do use it. We do have a facility right here in the state of Maine that is very reputable and probably one of the better ones in the country for that and we do typically present that type of evidence in our court cases.”It does appear that the lab will have no shortage of work when this hunting season ends. “There’s a lot of countryside out there in Maine and we would be naïve to think that poaching doesn’t occur it certainly does,” says DenDanto. “But it turns out that a lot of the people who are likely commit those types of crimes are repeat offenders and so with each time they conduct one of those illegal activities they certainly increase their chances of getting caught.”