CSI: Critter Crime

An Oregon laboratory thwarts wildlife crime around the world

 

Ed Espinoza hacked into the bloated walrus with a machete. Whiffing and gagging, he waded into the rotten guts looking for clues. His boss, Ken Goddard, smote a few, too, but preferred to crouch upwind in his blaze-orange hat and capture their first crime scene investigation on camera.

Goddard and Espinoza are part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's own forensic science branch. In 1990, they were dispatched to Alaska to examine hundreds of Pacific walruses that had washed ashore, headless. They roved from one carcass to another, fording Arctic streams in their underwear, in hopes of discovering: Whodunit?

Local Eskimos accused Russians of shooting the walruses; they said they'd merely found the dead behemoths and beheaded them in order to salvage the ivory. But the evidence showed otherwise. If the walruses had been beheaded onshore, rotting tissue would still cling to their neck bones. But these bodies had bleached, clean neck bones - confirming that they were beheaded before being dumped into the ocean. The walruses, Espinoza concluded, were poached for their ivory.

Eighteen years have passed since what Goddard calls the "Guts and Glory" case. But he and Espinoza are still investigating wildlife crime, working as director and deputy director, respectively, of Fish and Wildlife's Forensic Lab in Ashland, Ore. The laboratory is as valuable to the world's wildlife protection laws as the CSI television series is to the entertainment industry.

Before 1989, the agency relied on museums and zoos to help analyze items seized by law enforcement agents, and to testify in court against deep-pocketed poachers. Now the forensic lab helps identify evidence, bring charges and obtain convictions. It also assists the fish and wildlife departments of all 50 states, and is the official wildlife crime lab for nearly 200 countries. Its scientists pioneer methods unique to animal forensics, provide legal testimony, and aren't even surprised to receive a monkey hand through the mail. In fact, the morphology lab already has a drawerful.

In 1979, Goddard left police work for the Fish and Wildlife Service, where he was charged with developing a forensics program. It took him seven years to raise the $4.5 million needed to start the lab, and another two years to design and build the facility. In the meantime, Goddard put together a crime scene investigation kit, and spent the early '80s learning about wildlife law enforcement from the agency's special agents. It was somewhat unnerving: The agents crept through swamps, confronted poachers without wearing bulletproof vests, and joined outlaw motorcycle gangs to penetrate illegal ivory-trafficking rings. But for Goddard, it was better than being a deputy sheriff in San Bernardino County, where the carnage he investigated made him worry about his young daughter.

Now a grandfather, Goddard writes thrillers and advises CSI: Las Vegas. The lab he started is now a 40,000 square-foot facility with a biohazard containment area and three DNA sequencers. It's home to a collection of 75,000-100,000 specimens - a necropolis of wildlife crime.

Much of the lab's time is spent developing this collection, says Goddard. He opens drawers full of tiger penises and bear paws and explains how forensic scientists use animal parts to help solve the mysteries often delivered to them by FedEx. To further the scientists' study of skeletons, the lab keeps a colony of dermestid beetles to munch fetid flesh from bones. The beetles had a bad habit of escaping and crawling up pant legs to nibble on human calves, Goddard says. But in 2007, the lab's $15 million expansion included a private room in which these industrious volunteers could do their work.

"Everything I look at in the lab is really, really dead," says Pepper Trail, the lab's ornithologist. At the lab, he spends a good chunk of his time bathing headless, tailless birds, using a toothbrush.

In the arid West, open water is scarce. But the oil industry has created thousands of pools near its wells in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico. Parched passerines or other animals that drink from them get a nasty surprise: Each pool is actually a watery soup of drilling mud, hydrocarbons and toxic metals left over after water is injected into drying wells to force out the last few drops of oil.

"And it's not an occasional thing," Trail says. "This is serious." From 1992 to 2005, Trail identified 172 species, from prairie falcons to woodpeckers to cuckoos, among the 2,060 black blobs mailed to him at the lab. Trail estimates that oil pits kill between 500,000 and 1 million birds annually - and that doesn't include animals that later die from exposure to the toxic fluids. In comparison, the notorious Exxon Valdez oil spill killed 250,000 birds.

Trail works oil-pit cases in concert with Fish and Wildlife field agents such as Delivan Roper. Stationed in Las Cruces, N.M., Roper patrols the pits around Carlsbad during migration season. He carries rubber gloves, a rigged painter's pole and a hydrogen sulfide meter. Sometimes the Bureau of Land Management tips him off, which is helpful, because after four days, a bird's body will sink and disintegrate.

Roper can't force pit owners to clean up their acts; only the Environmental Protection Agency can do that. Instead, he writes citations. After scooping a dozen dead birds from the surface of an oil pit, Roper cites the company for one violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Then Trail assists him in pricing the punishment: The company must pay $500 per violation, with a fine tacked on for each bird killed - $100 for a songbird, $500 for an owl or hawk, and $1,000 for an eagle. Stacked up against energy company profits, the penalty is often "looked at as a cost of doing business," says Roper.

But the forensics lab has tightened the screws on the industry by providing expert witnesses like Pepper Trail to help prosecute court cases. In 2002, agents collected 34 protected species from a pit with a poorly maintained cover of metal pipe and chicken wire. The company responsible, Ray Westall Operating Inc., argued that it could not be held accountable because no cause of death had been determined. But Trail directly linked the pollutants in the pit to the deaths of 18 kingbirds, 11 orioles, two pyrrhuloxias, a meadowlark, a lark bunting and a cactus wren. The judge found the company guilty and fined it $11,108.50; he also sentenced its officers to two years' probation and ordered them to write an avian protection plan to prevent future poisoning. Westall has since appealed, but going to court forces companies to take the Migratory Bird Treaty Act more seriously, says Mary Kay McCulloch, a U.S. attorney who has used Trail in this and other avian mortality cases.

In their work with the lab, U.S. attorneys also learn about wildlife laws. "Wildlife cases in general are often viewed as less serious," says Paul Chang, the special agent in charge of Oregon, California and Nevada. The Fish and Wildlife Service gains attention from the U.S. attorney's office by presenting solid cases based on scientific analysis, "and the lab plays a huge role in that," Chang says.

The forensic lab processes 900 cases a year, 65 percent of them for the federal government. As the only wildlife crime lab in the world, the Ashland crew is assured a diverse caseload; FedEx delivers seal heads, caviar eggs and Tibetan antelope shawls. Yet there are recurrent themes. "If there's a bread-and-butter case at the lab, it has to do with bear bile," says Espinoza. Already this week, he and his chemistry team have tested six gallbladders to verify that they came from bears - and aren't imitations like pig or cow.

Southeast Asians have used bear bile for centuries to treat liver disease and cancer. In the process, Asia's moon bear population was decimated, and although the Chinese government keeps roughly 7,000 moon bears in cages, with catheters milking their gallbladders, the voracious market has caused the deaths of hundreds of Oregon bears.

The lab helps map the $6 billion-a-year illegal trade in wildlife and related products. By identifying the locations from which authentic bear galls come, it helps the Fish and Wildlife Service decide how to use its limited funds and where to put its covert agents. But the bear-bile market has been difficult to quash - the palm-sized sacs are easily hidden, dipped in chocolate or stuffed down pants. "We estimate that if just 1 percent of China's population could afford to buy a bear gallbladder, it would wipe out the entire U.S. (bear) population," says Espinoza.

The lab's crack forensic team is frequently the bane of the bile business. But once its science backfired: Even after he confessed to trafficking bear galls, one smuggler escaped conviction when the lab proved that the 170 galls he possessed were phony.


The author writes from Ashland, Oregon.