Wildlife Detectives | KUOW News and Information

Wildlife Detectives

Credit EarthFix illustration

  The phrase “wildlife trafficking” usually evokes visions of elephant tusks, tiger pelts and mounted trophy heads of animals killed in faraway places, then smuggled into the United States, Asia or Europe.

But traffickers and poachers are also robbing the United States of its own native fauna. Our investigation found that’s especially true in the wildlife-abundant region of the Pacific Northwest.

Our team of reporters conducted hundreds of interviews, spent hours reviewing documents, and followed law enforcement as they worked their cases. 

Go Undercover With Northwest Shellfish Detectives

May 26, 2015
Detective Wendy Willette of Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife in the police van. Willette heads an operation to unravel a shellfish black market that has sprung up in South Puget Sound.
EarthFix Photo/Katie Campbell

OLYMPIA, Wash. – A man and woman drive a blue pickup to the back of a Chinese restaurant.

A man approaches them with a scale as the woman pulls a bag heavy with clams from the back of the truck.

The transaction is quick and casual, as though they’ve done this before. And they have. But this time, a hidden camera has captured their transaction. 

Poaching 100-Year-Old Geoducks For Big Money

May 26, 2015
Officer Natalie Vorous unpacks boxes of geoduck at Sea-Tac searching for evidence they were harvested legally. These were not. They were confiscated.
EarthFix Photo/Katie Campbell

Of all the shellfish that sell on the black market, one clam is above the rest -- the geoduck.

Pronounced gooey-duck, these hefty clams bury themselves in sand where they stay for 100 years, doing little more than stretching their meter-long, fleshy siphon up to feed on phytoplankton.

Sturgeon Poachers Angle For Caviar On The Columbia

May 21, 2015
 The man in this photo has been charged with trying to sell an illegal sturgeon. Police say he used this cellphone photo of himself alongside the fish on the bank of the Columbia River to market the fish.
Courtesy of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The high value of caviar is driving poachers to an inventive way to cash in on giant sturgeon in the Columbia River:

They lash live fish with ropes to the riverbank for safe-keeping until black-market buyers can be located. Enforcement officials have also found sturgeon carcasses floating in the river with their bellies slit open to harvest their eggs.

The forensics lab in Ashland, Oregon, uses state-of-the-art technology to crack cases against endangered species and trafficked trees.
EarthFix/Katie Campbell

Laura Daugherty balances a small tray on one gloved hand, like a waiter at black-tie restaurant.

Today’s main course is ring-necked pheasant – freshly skinned and raw.

Her patrons are a teeming pile of flesh-eating beetles.

Troy Capps found deer antlers in central Oregon’s backcountry. Capps is a co-founder of Oregon Shed Hunters, a group that promotes ethical shed hunting. Credit: Courtney Flatt/EarthFix
EarthFix Photo/Courtney Flatt

REDMOND, Ore. -- Every year deer and elk shed their antlers, and every year people try to find them. 

The sport is called shed hunting, and it's often a family affair. But some people do more than just search for dropped antlers on the ground -- they chase elk and deer to stress them out, which often causes them to drop their antlers. 

How To Cook A Geoduck

May 18, 2015
Kevin Bartlett of Taylor Shellfish in Seattle shows David George Gordon, the bug chef, how to cook geoduck.
KCTS9/Aileen Imperial

Geoducks (that's pronounced gooey-duck) are a shellfish delicacy, fetching about $30 a pound here in Seattle. But how do you cook these curious creatures? Kevin Bartlett of Taylor Shellfish at Melrose Market in Seattle showed us how. 

Here's the video; we also provide a step-by-step guide with photos below. 

Oregon State Fish and Wildlife troopers James Hayes, left, and Darin Bean patrol several thousand square miles in Central Oregon, where mule deer are in decline.
EarthFix Photo/Tony Schick

LA PINE, Oregon – The doe wandered across the wrong property. What’s left of her was a blood stain in a bathtub.

Oregon Fish and Wildlife Trooper Darin Bean found the remains in a house here in the high country. He had been searching for a man who had illegally shot a deer and had missed his court date.

Pinto abalone were near extinction by the end of the 1990s in Puget Sound. But with a little help from science, their wild populations are slowly rising.
EarthFix Photo/Katie Campbell

MUKILTEO, Wash. – In a dark fish tank at a government-run lab, a striking sea snail slowly inches from its hiding spot.

It’s a pinto abalone, and its numbers are dangerously low in Washington state after decades of overharvesting and poaching. This little-known animal is a delicacy, still served in U.S. restaurants, and its shell is a source of mother-of-pearl.

Inside Washington State’s Geoduck Auction

May 17, 2015
At this state geoduck auction, the winning bid was $333,000, which triggered a murmer of disbelief through the room.
EarthFix Photo/Katie Campbell

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Each year the Washington Department of Natural Resources auctions off permission to harvest geoduck (those long, rubber-necked shellfish) from certain areas throughout Puget Sound. The company with the highest bid earns the right to harvest a specific amount of geoduck at a set location during a defined time period.

Eagle feathers and parts are sent to the National Eagle and Wildlife Property Repository for redistribution to Native Americans for ceremonial use.
EarthFix/Kris Millgate

SWAN VALLEY, Idaho – It’s mud season in eastern Idaho. Winter is over. The reservoirs are filling, the ground is greening and the eagles are returning.

These birds are why researcher Michael Whitfield is in the woods.