CSI: Wildlife

Image of Rick Spitzer
Rick Spitzer

One popular television program was CSI. The forensics crime drama ran on CBS for 15 seasons. Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) was a whodunit scenario where law enforcement personnel would collect, preserve, document, and analyze evidence found at the scene of a crime. Forensic specialists would then apply science to solve the crime.

We often think of the use CSI as being applied to criminals in big cities perpetrating a crime on a human victim. What if the crime was committed in the “woods” and the victim was “wildlife”? It turns out that this whodunit scenario is a reality. These wildlife crimes are solved using similar strategies, investigative techniques, and crime labs that focus on wildlife.

EvidenceKit (1)

District Wildlife Managers carry a kit that contains items needed to collect evidence at the scene of a suspected wildlife crime.

In Colorado poaching includes many things such as…

Hunting without the correct license or tag.
Hunting out of season.
Hunting at night and/or using spotlights.
Taking more than the legal limit.
Hunting with a prohibited weapon.
Filling someone else's tag.
Killing a protected species.
Killing an animal while trespassing.

While there are several crimes involving wildlife, poaching is probably the most common. CPW issues about 3,300 poaching citations each year. Many more instances likely go undetected. While the exact figures are unknown, some studies indicate poachers may kill almost as many animals and fish as legitimate hunters take during legal seasons. Even if poaching takes considerably less than that number, the problem can be a serious issue.

Moose034 (1)Poaching trophy sized animals removes the stronger and more hardy individuals and that can be detrimental to the health of a herd.

Killing of trophy animals when any of the above might apply in Colorado is a violation of “Samson’s Law.” In 1995 a very high-profile poaching occurred near Rocky Mountain National Park when a well-known bull elk called Samson was killed. Samson was a thousand-pound bull elk that was slain by a poacher. It was a blatant act of willful destruction of wildlife. Samson was a town mascot of Estes Park, Colorado and because of that poaching event, Colorado became the first state to levy higher fines for illegally poaching certain trophy animals.

For example, killing a trophy elk or deer in Colorado can add an automatic $10,000 dollar surcharge on top of existing fines and surcharges for said violation. In addition to fines, violations of hunting and fishing statutes and regulations in Colorado carry “points”, where if an individual accrues a certain number of points, their privilege to hunt and fish could be revoked temporarily or permanently in Colorado and 47 other states that are a part of the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact. It is also a Class 5 Felony in Colorado to sell wildlife or to intentionally take and abandon wildlife. 

Contact. (1)When a District Wildlife Manager makes a contact they can check licenses and ensure that weapons are properly stored.

The impact of poaching is wide ranging. There is a healthy market for taking wildlife illegally. It can have a negative impact on the environment where it occurs. A decline in the population for certain species can have an impact on ecosystems and lead to the loss of biodiversity. In addition, it can have an economic impact on ecotourism and hunting revenue for local communities that may rely on the natural resources for their livelihoods.

Sometimes poaching doesn’t have to include wildlife with large antlers or horns, or beautiful hides. Box turtle populations are decreasing dramatically because poachers are taking them to sell to the pet industry. Moose, elk, and deer antlers are acquired to sell to dog owners as chew toys. Bear gallbladder, liver, bile and testicles are prized in Chinese medicine, mostly as aphrodisiacs. A gall bladder can fetch up to $3000. Most bear parts are smuggled into Asian countries.

BlackBear (1)

Trailcams can be used to identify wildlife in an area and even a person who was involved in a suspected poaching incident and returns to the scene.

Many years ago, people often poached animals to put food on the table. That is called subsistence hunting. The motivation today is rarely about putting necessary food on the table because there are government programs that focus on providing food to people who are hungry. In fact, individuals can even ask CPW to put them on a list to receive meat from roadkill or improperly harvested animals. CPW officers will also gift such discards to area families known to have the need.

In Colorado and nationwide, authorities estimate that poaching numbers are creeping up, and the poachers themselves are becoming savvier than ever. They are using drones, night vision equipment, and thermal-imaging sensors. Trail cameras are being used along with smart phones to send current information about the location of animals to the poachers. No aircraft may be used to locate animals from the air. None of this equipment can be used in the prior 48 hours of a licensed hunt.

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A metal detector can be used to locate bullets or other metal objects that might be evidence in a crime.

What is being done to reduce this impact? CPW develops regulations to keep wildlife populations healthy and to uphold the “fair chase” guidelines, promoted by national sportsmen’s organizations. Hunters using rifles must wear orange and operate during daylight hours. Any technology that would give a hunter an unfair advantage is also prohibited. Fair chase guidelines limit the tools or options available to hunters to utilize in lawfully taking wildlife. If hunters were given access to all the technology available today, it would make it extremely easy to take any wildlife, anywhere, anytime. Hunters are also expected to do everything they can to remove and use the animals they kill. It is illegal to take a trophy and leave the carcass.

CPW is relying on the public to stop poachers. Operation Game Thief, was launched in 1981. This program pays rewards to citizens who turn in poachers that leads to an arrest or a citation being issued. Reports can be sent by calling toll-free within Colorado at 1-877-COLO-OGT, Verizon cell phone users can dial #OGT, or a citizen may e-mail information to game.thief@state.co.us. Callers do not have to reveal their names or testify in court. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) investigators may also use social media to identify crimes.

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A caliper kit can be used to measure evidence like the caliber of bullets.

The state of Colorado has 131 districts, and each district has a district wildlife manager (DWM). Some refer to them as game wardens. In addition, there are many biologists, property technicians and supervisors that carry a commission equivalent to wildlife officers. A district wildlife officer in Colorado is a Level 1 Peace Officer, and they have the same authority as a state trooper or deputy sheriff. Checking for compliance with hunting and fishing laws is a big part of the job that they do.

When these individuals with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife investigate suspected wildlife violations, they apply the same strategies as a law enforcement person in a large city that investigates criminal activity. The same forensic and scientific methods used by other law enforcement agencies are applied. The Colorado State Patrol, local sheriff’s offices, and town police departments may be involved. They must follow all the guidelines for investigations, including warrants and applying the rights of criminal suspects.

EvidenceBag (1)

Evidence collected at a scene can be placed in bags and labeled.

Evidence is material that is gathered at the scene and may include items that are testimonial, documentary, or physical in nature that can be used for proving violations of law and establishing the facts surrounding the violations. These investigations can require the assistance of supporting agencies to assist with evidence gathered at the scene of a suspected crime. Evidence must be gathered as soon as possible, at any time, in any weather conditions. The fresher the evidence the better chance of catching the violator. Colorado District Wildlife Managers have training and carry a kit for collecting evidence and for transferring that evidence without contaminating it.

SpecimentContainer (1)Smaller specimen containers can be used to collect specific kinds of evidence.

Evidence gathered at the scene of a suspected crime may be sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. They are a law enforcement agency of the state of Colorado that performs forensic and laboratory services and criminal investigations at the request of local and state law enforcement agencies and district attorneys. They investigate many types of crime and provide forensic services that include DNA, biology, firearm, fingerprint, toxicology, and drug chemistry analysis. The scene is photographed and often maps of the area are created. Google Earth is often used to provide an overview. Interviews of individuals in the surrounding camps may provide information.

EvidenceFlag1 (1)

Orange flags are place at a scene when possible evidence is identified.

In some cases the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is also contacted for help. Another lab that assists in testing evidence is the CSI lab in Laramie, Wyoming. The forensics applied by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's Wildlife Forensic Laboratory is some of the most advanced in the country and can be used by CPW into investigations of poaching, trespassing and even predator attacks.


Evidentiary items that arrive in the laboratory can be in the form of tissue from carcasses with missing heads, or arrows with blood, blood spots or antlers, etc. The lab will compare the different items by examination using very high-tech procedures and instruments to determine the type of animal involved (mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, or moose, etc.). The gender of the animals involved and exactly how many different animals are represented by all the different items submitted can also be determined. In short, the laboratory attempts to assist the law enforcement community to link suspect, victim (in this case, the poached animal) and the crime scene.

DNACollectionBag (1)

A DNA Collection Vial can be use to secure DNA evidence at the scene to help identify individuals and specifics about animals.

If the crime is the illegal purchase of a license, then electronic investigation, which includes driver license, property ownership, voting registration, and place of employment and vehicle registrations are investogated. A check with other states for a record of the suspect purchasing other state resident licenses. Cell phones can be checked for information on locations and photographs.

Colorado Department of Game and Fish was established on April 27, 1899. That state agency was tasked with overseeing the enforcement of game and fish laws. In 1937 Colorado had established its first state parks to create recreation opportunities for Coloradans. In 2011 the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) merged with Colorado State Parks in an effort to make the government more efficient and renamed Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The scope of lands and wildlife managed by CPW has increased considerably over the agency’s 124-year history. The CPW mission is "to perpetuate the wildlife resources of the state, to provide a quality state parks system, and to provide enjoyable and sustainable outdoor recreation opportunities that educate and inspire current and future generations to serve as active stewards of Colorado’s natural resources.”

"Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect."
- Chief Seattle, 1854

CPW (2)

The Eagle County Community Wildlife Roundtable is a collaborative partnership with the White River National Forest, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, local government entities, community members, and citizen scientists. The purpose of the Eagle County Community Wildlife Roundtable is to gather a group of diverse stakeholders in the valley to understand and address issues facing wildlife populations. Together we will identify a shared vision and realistic actions that the community can rally around to support wildlife. We want to leverage diverse values, creativity, and resources to move toward positive action.

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