By the time provincial conservation officer Laury Brouzes found the once-proud buck all that remained was scattered fur, a pink skeleton, and a furry hooved foot. Coyotes had licked its vertebrae clean.
The day before, someone had tipped authorities off, naming an individual who had shot a deer and only taken the head. It is an offence, under the Wildlife Act to waste any edible portion of a big-game animal, so Brouzes got to work questioning neighbours and gathering statements.
His sleuthing led him to a farmer’s field near St. Amelie, Man. where he tracked the prints to a cluster of bushes where the buck had fallen. Not much was left but the leg was enough DNA material to send to the forensic lab. He got an axe from his truck and salvaged the bottom eight inches of the limb.
“All you need is a small piece of tied meat and the hair,” he said. “Usually they want a piece of two square inches, but you always take more than what you need.”
Conservation officers have used forensic evidence to track poachers for nearly 15 years now. Back in the 1980s, prior to the advent of DNA analysis, officers used blood analysis to determine the type of meat from a chunk of tissue. They would partner these findings with other evidence, like firearm forensics, to make a case.
“On our better cases and in good investigations we’ll have a number of methods you might see on programs like CSI,” said Jack Harrigan, head of enforcement.
“It’s not quite the same though,” he laughs. “It takes longer than an hour to solve. Literally it’s like connecting the dots. Establishing reasonable grounds to lay charges against the offender.”
Though conservation officers act as enforcers, and have since the 1940s, their role has only just been recently clarified. At the end of November the Manitoba government introduced legislation that will formally recognize conservation officers as law enforcement officers.
“The announcement won’t give us new responsibilities as much as it will confirm our existing roles,” said Harrigan. “What it does is strengthen our authority to conduct enforcement.”
Conservation officers in Manitoba have carried firearms since 1998 and enforce all laws related to wildlife and the environment — including wildfires and poaching.
Caught deer headed
Less than a month after collecting the samples, eight officers entered a property owned by the suspected poacher, 23-year-old Brendon Peeler.
Some patrolled access routes so no one could enter or exit and another stayed with the suspect. The others searched each building for the missing deer head.
An officer with a video camera panned each space before and after entering a room, to ensure there would be no complaints about property damaged during the search.
They found what they were looking for amongst the outbuildings.
In a garage, between piles of tires, they found two deer heads with tags on them. The eyes, still open, looked fresh.
“You can tell how old and how long ago the deer had been shot by the eyes because the eyes begin to shrink and sink into the head,” said Brouzes. He guessed these had been killed around the time of the crime.
A seizing officer took the frozen deer heads and tagged them for the evidence locker. DNA from one of the heads matched the torso of the found deer. On July 8, 2014 Peeler was fined $1,297 for unlawful possession of an illegally taken deer and $673.65 for wasting the edible portion of a deer. He was banned from hunting for two years.
The other head was returned to Peeler because it had been killed during hunting season and could have been obtained legally.
“Of course the guy lied his face off,” said Brouzes, “but once the DNA is matched you’re toast.”
DNA analysis was also used in an investigation involving allegations a hunter had illegally shot a whitetail deer and then entered the buck in two hunting contests. The buck won both contests, but information emerged the deer had actually been shot from a vehicle on a road within Hecla Provincial Park. Officers were able to find the original kill site and collected photographs and samples of deer hair that were sent for DNA analysis.
Those samples were compared to the hide which was located at a local taxidermist and the hunter was charged with possessing illegally taken wildlife, hunting big game in a prohibited area and discharging a loaded firearm from a vehicle. The accused was found guilty and fined a total of $3,418.25 for the offences.