July 02, 2020

Wildlife forensics lab new weapon against poachers> Facility will provide DNA evidence

ORONO — As the Maine Warden Service works to fight game poachers, a new forensics laboratory will provide DNA evidence that could lead to the prosecution of illegal hunters.

“DNA analysis allows us to prosecute individuals for serious big game violations whom we could not otherwise charge with crimes,” said Deborah Palman, forensic specialist for the Maine Warden Service.

The new lab, which opened in December at the University of Maine, will be used to compare meat found at the scene of an illegal kill with meat in the possession of hunters.

“In effect, DNA from the carcass of an illegally killed animal compared to DNA in the meat possessed by suspects provides proof of their guilt or innocence,” Palman said.

Lab supervisor Irving L. Kornfield, a University of Maine zoology professor, said the lab is currently working to develop a genetic profile of the state’s moose herd.

In order to make effective use of DNA evidence, “you have to characterize the population,” Kornfield said.

While forensic specialists can generally determine easily when two pieces of tissue are from different animals, matching them conclusively to the same animals becomes more difficult, Kornfield said.

For example, if two pieces of tissue have different blood types, they are clearly from different animals. But if they have the same blood type, they are not necessarily from the same animal.

Researchers are working to develop the genetic profile by studying DNA from about 1,000 moose killed in the past few years.

Before opening its own lab, Maine sent wildlife forensics cases to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services lab in Oregon.

“But the difficulty,” Kornfield said, “is that because of the load that lab has, it’s sometimes hard to get a rapid turnaround.”

Only a handful of other states have their own wildlife forensics labs, Kornfield said.

The lab, which is a collaborative effort between the University of Maine and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, received its first year of funding through a $42,000 grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund.

The Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund is a state program that raises funds for conservation projects through the sale of Outdoor Heritage Scratch lottery tickets.

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