By Tom Stienstra
THE CASE of the worst mass killing of elk in the past 100 years– 15 Roosevelt elk slaughtered by poachers in Northern California– was solved by wildlife detective Jim Banks using DNA analysis at the Department of Fish and Game’s forensic lab.
This was the most dramatic crime among thousands of wildlife violations in which Banks’ lab work has led to convictions. As the godfather of wildlife DNA lab work, Banks was named the top game warden in America this week, the International Conservation Officer of the Year, by the Shikar-Safari Club.
Game Warden John Dawson said many suspects confess when they are told what they are up against. “I tell them we have the best forensic scientist in the nation who will be able to tell me the exact sex and the number of animals represented by a blood smear or meat sample,” Dawson said.
Facing the combination of Banks and DNA science, they often give up.
Banks first developed using DNA evidence in 1993 to catch deer poachers. It was a revolution in wildlife crime enforcement in America. With small tissue, blood or hair samples, Banks could match up evidence found in the field with meat in a suspect’s freezer. In a significant breakthrough, Banks could test deer meat and testify if the animal was a doe. That discovery alone could lead to a conviction; shooting does is banned throughout California.
In addition, Banks was able to reduce the cost of DNA analysis to only $7 per sample, making the work practical for high-volume operation anywhere in America. The DFG has accused poachers of illegally killing up to 50,000 deer per year in California, crimes that undermine deer populations and attempts at herd management. By comparison, about 25,000 to 30,000 are taken by legal hunters in the state.
“Poaching can have a profound impact on the overall health of wildlife populations,” Banks said. “We are a society of laws, not only designed to protect people but to regulate and protect wildlife. If we don’t respect and uphold these laws, then we revert back to the days of the Wild West, and that’s when the very survival of wild species came into question.”
Wildlife law enforcement, paid for by anglers and hunters, has helped many species rebound to 100-year population highs.
The DFG estimates that commercial poaching is a $100 million-a-year business in California. An illegal elk head with impressive antlers can be sold for $20,000 and bear gall bladders for $5,000. In one DFG undercover operation, an estimated 10,000 illegal abalone were involved, worth $350,000 for the poachers and $1 million in restaurants.
Banks’ work has helped bust open many landmark cases:
Elk slaughter: In a grisly kill scene, game wardens found the carcasses of 15 elk in national forest near Burney in Shasta County. They represented nearly the entire herd in the area. Four game wardens collected the evidence and handed it over to Banks, who was also on the scene.
A phone tip reported that elk meat had been bagged and hidden underwater in a tributary of Fall River. State divers found the meat. “We were able to match the bagged meat with the evidence from the kill site,” Banks said.
Game wardens conducted a search of the suspects’ homes and found traces of blood and meat. “We compared the blood at the suspects’ home with that from the kill site and meat found in the water,” Banks said. “It was from the same animals.”
Six poachers were arrested and convicted.
Gall bladder crackdown: In an undercover operation, game warden John Dawson infiltrated an extensive wildlife crime ring. Poachers in Northern California were illegally killing bears, taking the gall bladder and paws, and selling the parts on the black market in Los Angeles. They were then sold in Korea, where they are dried, ground into powder and sprinkled on food as a medical cure-all.
Banks became involved when Dawson wanted proof that the same bear gall bladders were being sold in the chain of illegal activity. In an elaborate scam, some of the gall bladders being sold were not from bears but from pigs and steers. The case went to trial and the kingpins of the operation, based in Los Angeles, were convicted, fined and jailed.
Chinatown fraud: In San Francisco’s Chinatown, game wardens busted markets that advertised selling sea lion penises as sexual-enhancement food additive. Banks shocked the sellers, buyers and game wardens by determining the penises were actually from cows.
Elk and deer surprise: In the town of Klamath in Humboldt County, game warden Rick Banko spotted two men cleaning elk and deer. When confronted, the men claimed they were Hoopa Indians and that they had shot the elk and deer on the Hoopa Reservation. The next day, a ranger from Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park near Orick found three elk heads and other animal parts stashed in brush at the park. At the same time, a tip told of another kill site, where two gut piles were discovered. Banks rushed to scene and collected the evidence.
In the meantime, Banko returned to Klamath, confronted the suspects and found the elk and deer still hanging (cooling) prior to butchering. Banko cut meat from each of the animals, and immediately drove it to the lab in Rancho Cordova. It took a week for Banks to make an irrefutable match. The poachers were arrested and convicted.
Abalone scam: For very high prices, restaurants and markets in Los Angeles were selling abalone. That’s illegal unless the abalone is grown at a mariculture farm. The lack of paperwork and the large quantity involved indicated to investigators this was an illegal operation.
Banks analyzed meat samples that were being sold as abalone and determined the “abalone” was actually — common squid.
Dead deer can talk: In the Sierra foothills east of Fresno last year, game warden Lorraine Doyle received a tip that several deer, including a juvenile buck, were being killed in the area. Doyle found the kill site; there were hides, a head and other remains.
Meanwhile, a butcher in Fresno reported to the DFG that an individual brought meat to him for boning, butchering and packing. When Doyle confronted the suspect, he said the deer were legally taken. Doyle tracked down four other suspects and, with a search warrant, collected meat samples from their freezers.
At the lab, Banks matched up the parts from the kill site, including the juvenile buck, to the meat in their freezers. It turned out that six bucks were illegally taken. The five suspects were convicted and fined. –San Francisco Chronicle