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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

October 1999

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Wired wardens

As lawbreakers' tools get more high-tech, so do the wardens'.

Randy Stark

High-tech techniques
Table of Contents

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.

Increasingly, wardens are tuning in to technology to assist in law enforcement efforts. © DNR Photo
Increasingly, wardens are tuning in to technology to assist in law enforcement efforts. © DNR Photo

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."

Well-equipped vehicles connect wardens to the colleagues and databases that can help pull a case together. © DNR Photo
Well-equipped vehicles connect wardens to the colleagues and databases that can help pull a case together. DNR Photo

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.

High-tech techniques

Conservation wardens are increasingly finding their evidence at the bottom of a test tube or spread across a slide.

Laboratory testing helped Dane County conservation warden John Welke build a case going to federal court this fall against a Portage man who allegedly poached a buck and cooked up an elaborate alibi. The investigation indicates the man may have shot a buck in Columbia County, where his hunting license was revoked, and hauled the animal up to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. There, the man and his companion allegedly tied a Michigan hunting tag on the deer's antlers and shot the deer with an arrow to make it look like it had been killed with a bow and arrow. Then the companion videotaped the nearby woods, to "prove" that the buck was killed in Michigan.

© DNR Photo

Welke called in scientists from University of Wisconsin's Geology and Geophysics Department, who found clues in the rock formations shown in the video. Rocks in the Upper Peninsula are much older than in Columbia County; the levels of the element strontium differ significantly in the two sets of rocks, and in the plants and bone matter of the animals that eat them, the experts said. They analyzed samples from the antlers of deer from Columbia County, from the Upper Peninsula, and from the buck the Portage man shot. The isotope levels suggest that the buck came from Columbia County, not the Upper Peninsula, Welke says.

"The forensic evidence, the videotape, and the fact that his hunting companion cooperated with us and gave us a statement, are all important parts of the case," Welke says.

Dodge County Conservation Warden Heather Gottschalk has similarly used new forensic technology to bolster cases. In one case, an angler claimed that the walleye in his pail was from the Wolf River, where the season was still open, instead of from Beaver Dam Lake, where he had been fishing when Gottschalk approached him. The warden turned to UW-Madison's Zoology Department for help in determining the fish's origin. There, experts explained that each waterbody has measurable levels of nitrogen and other elements that is as unique as a human signature or fingerprint. Fish and other aquatic life carry the same "signature" in their tissues, which would not change unless there was a catastrophic event like a major spill into the waterbody or the fish was removed from one waterbody and stocked in another. Even if fish are stocked elsewhere, it can take several years to change the chemical levels locked in their tissues, the UW experts said.

So Gottschalk brought the experts several walleyes from the Wolf River system and three from Beaver Dam Lake, which the experts ground and analyzed to note the specific signatures of those two waters. The experts also analyzed samples from the walleye the angler caught.

The result clearly showed two things: the nitrogen levels in the Wolf River System are a great deal different than those in Beaver Dam Lake, and that the walleye the angler caught had a signature chemical levels identical to the one found in walleyes taken from Beaver Dam Lake. That information helped win the case, Gottschalk says.

"Any time I can use lab work, I will," she says. "It's one more piece of evidence to support my case and make it even stronger. Violators have become very good at coming up with false stories. They can give me all the stories they want, but they can't ignore the facts of the analysis." – Lisa Gaumnitz