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On October 13, 2005, conservation warden Ryan Bond receives a complaint that a bear has been illegally shot on county forestland in Marinette County. Shortly after arriving at the scene, Warden Bond assesses the evidence and determines the violator, in a portable tree stand that was left at the scene, shot the bear. In addition, he finds blood and bear hair on the shoulder of the road next to some tire tracks. Bond photographs the tracks with a digital camera and collects blood and hair samples. He uses a metal detector to locate two .30-06 shell casings and a bullet.
Bond lifts several fingerprints from the tree stand using magnetic fingerprint powder. After firing up the laptop computer in his truck, he sends the prints through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). In minutes, AFIS searches millions of fingerprints and returns a hit indicating the print belongs to Robert Punser.
Bond then checks Punser's name in a database containing information on prior warden contacts and citizen complaints. He learns Punser was previously arrested for hunting after hours while he was in the company of Harry Haug and was using a .30-06. Armed with this information, Warden Bond obtains a search warrant using the cellular phone, laptop computer and printer in his truck.
Before leaving the scene, Bond sets up a video surveillance camera to monitor the area in case the perpetrator returns for the tree stand.
Wardens serve the warrant and locate a .30-06 rifle on the premises. Ballistics tests confirm Punser's gun fired the shells and bullet found at the scene. Despite Punser's efforts to wash out his truckbed, wardens use a chemical that detects blood to gather a sample that is matched with the blood found at the scene by DNA analysis. Wardens also verify that the wear pattern on the left rear tire of Punser's truck matches the enlarged digital photos of vehicle tracks taken at the scene.
When confronted with the evidence, Punser decides to cooperate. He confesses and implicates his companion in crime, Harry Haug.
Much of the technology mentioned in this scenario exists today and is used on a limited basis by Wisconsin conservation wardens, but will be more widespread in the near future.
"We're continually testing and adopting new equipment and investigative techniques," says Tom Harelson, chief warden. "It's a race to stay ahead of workload and stay ahead of the poachers."
Technology will never replace the need for outdoor savvy, community contacts and knowledge of human nature, Harelson says, but the effective use of technology will make once-unsolvable cases easier to unravel. "And it will help increase efficiency in both the work the wardens do and in their ability to catch and bring poachers to justice."
One tool that may help is a voice stress analyzer. The equipment, now being tested by a few wardens, compares a person's voice patterns with normal voice patterns as he or she is being interviewed about a natural resource violation. When the stress analyzer reveals an abnormal pattern, "we use it as an indicator that it's an area we'd better look into more deeply," Harelson says.
Sophisticated lawbreakers now use tripwires and surveillance devices to detect when wardens are present; night vision optics to see game and wardens after dark; global positioning units to pinpoint traps and nets; and infrared detection to note warm-blooded animals at night. Poachers also use laser-sights to hunt illegally at night; wireless cameras and hearing devices to observe illegal baits or traps from remote locations; and portable two-way radios to monitor police scanners or post scouts during poaching.
"Every day it seems like when we find one way to combat illegal hunting or fishing, the poachers find another way to basically continue their illegal activity," says John Welke, a Dane County conservation warden. "With the accessibility of the technology and the discretionary income, unethical hunters are taking the time to research these issues and use the technology to enhance their abilities."
The warden service is responding. By early 2000, the DNR plans to equip all field wardens with powerful laptop computers capable of transmitting data by wireless means. Wardens can then access a vast network of information including DNR licenses and registrations, criminal history records, driver's license and vehicle registrations, nationwide criminal histories and fingerprint databases managed by the FBI.
By using the computer to collate information from several sources and to analyze shreds of evidence, wardens should be able to quickly follow leads, identify potential suspects, and link cases. Officer and public safety will also improve – with a computer, wardens can do a quick background check on a suspect's previous criminal or civil records, and from this information gauge how to approach each individual.
Rapidly changing technology is a certainty. How the warden service harnesses that technology and applies the information it furnishes will partly determine the success of the service in the 21st century.
Warden Randy Stark leads the law enforcement team in DNR's 12-county South Central Region.