Wildlife Forensic Lab Helps Nab Poachers

Tom Harvey, 512-389-4453, tom.harvey@tpwd.texas.gov

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SAN MARCOS, Texas – It seemed like a good day for hunting: crystal blue sky, a cold front had just come through. When Game Warden Michael McCall found a deer feeder about 100 yards into the undeveloped property on Eagle Mountain Lake, he realized it might be a good day to catch poachers as well.

“I hid my boat on the north side of a slough in kind of a cove area and waited,” McCall said. “About 15 minutes later, I heard a shot from a high-powered rifle.”

As the hunters attempted a water escape, McCall gave chase. After about 10 miles and 30 minutes, the hunters dumped the boat and drove away in a truck with the deer they had killed.

The poachers and their prize escaped for the moment, but they left something very important behind: blood. McCall collected a sample of blood from the abandoned boat and submitted it to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s wildlife forensic lab.

The lab, located in San Marcos at the A.E. Wood Fish Hatchery, serves as one of only a handful of labs nationwide that focuses upon wildlife forensics, and Beverly Villarreal is the lab’s only forensic specialist.

Within the next few months, the TPWD lab is expected to become only the second accredited wildlife crime lab in the nation, the first being the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Forensics Laboratory. Accreditation is determined by an inspection of the lab by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.

“There are certain requirements as far as how you handle the evidence. It’s mostly having procedures in place and following those procedures,” Villarreal said.

In the Eagle Mountain Lake Case, McCall had tracked down his suspect using their boat’s TX number. The suspects confessed to killing a doe, however according to a gender analysis conducted by Villarreal on the blood from collected from the boat, the deer was a male.

Villarreal has worked on more than 600 cases in her 15 years working in the lab. She has helped many game wardens in their efforts to prosecute poachers.

The majority of cases that require forensic analysis involve deer poaching. Blood may be found in a suspected-poacher’s vehicle, and if they claim that it’s rabbit or hog, lab testing can determine the truth.

“If a game warden comes in and says, ‘I think this is white-tailed deer’ I use this,” Villarreal said, pointing to a machine.

Despite what the CBS show “CSI” may demonstrate, most of the work done in the real forensic lab takes a while.

“I was watching one of those episodes, and the lady put something in a machine, and it just spit out a paper with the results immediately,” Villarreal said. “I couldn’t help laughing.”

Villarreal, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Texas in Austin, began her forensics career as a part-time lab technician while working on her master’s at Texas State University.

With her busy season (hunting season) coming to an end, Villarreal is shifting her focus to the approaching deadline for lab accreditation, a Texas legislative requirement.

And as for McCall’s poachers, “I think they thought it would be a lesser fine to admit to killing a doe and they wanted to keep the head and antlers off the buck they killed,” McCall said.

Once the suspects were confronted with the lab report showing that the deer was male, they confessed to the truth and handed over the antlers. Villarreal had made a DNA match between the antlers and the blood from the suspect’s boat.

With the help of the forensic evidence, McCall’s case was the first felony poaching case prosecuted in Tarrant County, and it surely won’t be the last.