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

Critter CSI: This Forensics Lab Solves Crimes Against Wildlife

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.

“I’m sure they’re pretty hungry,” she says of the half-inch-long insects. “And this is a nice fresh body for them to work on.”

Daugherty places the dark pink meat onto an egg carton and lowers it into the Plexiglas tank. Within minutes, the beetles find their dinner.

Daugherty is an evidence technician at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. And despite the table service, the flesh-eating beetles are more co-workers than guests. Forensics scientists use them to strip animal carcasses down to the bone.

In the case of the ring-necked pheasant, Daugherty is creating a model that the lab’s scientists can use to help solve poaching or animal trafficking cases in the future. The beetles’ job is to reveal possible trauma to the pheasants.

Mystery Fur

The Ashland forensics lab is the only one in the world dedicated to solving crimes against wildlife. The facility opened in 1988 under Ken Goddard, who has been its director since.

“Much like any other police crime laboratory, we do two basic things: We identify evidence,” Goddard says. “In a triangular fashion, we attempt to link suspect, victim and crime scene together with that evidence.”

When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, wildlife enforcement officers wanted the FBI to solve these crimes. But Goddard says the FBI didn’t have the techniques to identify animals, and that the bureau made it known that human cases would take priority.

So the feds opened a lab for animals, which now handles up to 500 cases a year and examines up to 15,000 pieces of evidence.

Throughout the lab, amid the sophisticated equipment, are colorful, unusual and hunted specimens.

The facility features a pathology lab where medical examiners determine how an animal died. The ballistics lab links bullets to poachers’ guns. The genomics lab tests DNA to determine a creature’s species.

There’s also a morphology lab, where biologists who specialize in birds, reptiles and mammals identify the “pieces, parts and products” that come through the lab’s doors every day. That’s the most common request they get.

“You would not continue an investigation unless you’re pretty sure you’re dealing with an endangered or threatened species,” Goddard says.

For example, if wildlife agents come across a suspicious piece of fur, they can send it to the lab for testing. How the case is treated depends on whether that fur comes from a common coyote or an endangered wolf.

International Trade

Many of the Forensics Lab’s cases are brought by U.S. wildlife inspectors and special agents. But the facility is also the official crime lab for CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Ratified in 1973, the CITES treaty governs worldwide trade of rare plants and animals.

As the number of threatened and endangered species protected under CITES expands, so does the complexity of securing convictions for crimes against nature. In recent years, CITES has expanded its efforts to protect trees from illegal logging and trade.

About 50 tree species are now protected under the convention, and U.S. agents have begun seizing shipments of illegally trafficked wood from those trees. Rare species like Brazilian rosewood garner a hefty price on the black market. It’s a type of wood that is prized in making furniture and musical instruments.

But wood identification can be challenging because no one ships whole trees. Once the limbs, leaves, fruit and DNA-rich sapwood have been removed, scientists are left with wood grain and structure. That’s not enough to differentiate an endangered tree’s wood from a more common but closely related tree.

But what if you could tell apart wood from closely related tree species by their chemical “scents”?

The lab’s deputy director, Ed Espinoza, started puzzling over that when an inspector asked if he could identify an incense tree called agarwood, which is so aromatic it’s used to make perfume.

It occurred to Espinoza that he may be able to use a sophisticated machine at the lab called a DART-TOF (Direct Analysis in Real Time – Time of Flight) mass spectrometer.

“This instrument is kind of like a massive nose,” Espinoza says.

The experiment worked, so Espinoza and his team began collecting baseline samples of protected trees from around the world. Now the forensics lab can use the DART to identify many types of endangered wood down to the species level.

Interpol estimates the black market in timber and wood products is worth up to $100 billion, so any tool that can help stem that huge business is welcome.

Making A Difference?

“I think we’ve had a real impact in that we’ve enabled investigators to go forward into cases they simply never could have done before,” Goddard says.

This holds true for identifying wildlife products. For example, the lab developed techniques to quickly identify species of sturgeon by DNA testing roe. Once perfected, the lab was able to help U.S. law enforcement curtail the illegal importing of caviar.

But Goddard says law enforcement didn’t ultimately dry up caviar imports; overfishing did.

“I was taught long ago, as a young deputy sheriff, don’t expect to accomplish a lot in your job, Goddard recalls. “Law enforcement doesn’t resolve issues.”

But Goddard and Espinoza say they could be more effective with more resources -- ideally an international network of labs that would develop regional expertise, share data and build on wildlife forensic science.

The Ashland facility will soon get help closer to home. This year, the lab will add six scientists to its staff of 17. Even so, Goddard says, the lab can only do so much to curb human desire for plant and animal products.

“We’re not stopping the demand for ivory, the demand for rhino horn, the demand for all these varying medicinals, the food, the seafood,” he says.

He points to education and better enforcement as the path forward.

“The huge demand for wildlife by human populations has to be regulated,” he says, “or we’re simply going to lose them.”