|December 4, 2007
Poachers beware; the same technology used to prove the guilt or
innocence of a person based on DNA evidence has now been used to
convict a poacher in an Iowa court of law.
The case began on March 26, 2007, with an anonymous tip that led
conservation officer Craig Roberg to a Decatur County home on April
4. Roberg seized five packages of what appeared to be wild turkey
breast meat from a freezer while executing a search warrant. The
owner of the meat, Mike Jones, claimed it was domestic turkey meat
in his freezer. Officer Roberg believed otherwise.
This is not the first time Jones has been in court facing turkey
poaching charges. In 1993, and along with his brother, Jerry, he was
acquitted on reasonable doubt in a similar case involving the origin
of turkey meat in their possession. The science just was not yet
there to prove the case.
While working the present case, Roberg contacted Dr. Karen Mock, a
conservation geneticist with the Department of Wildland Resources at
Utah State University in Logan, Utah, who had been working with the
National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) to build a national database
of wild turkey DNA. The database consists of nearly 2,000 samples
contributed by hunters and game managers, primarily from eastern
states - Florida, West Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi and, to
a lesser extent, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
This sample collection originally developed to identify subspecies
boundaries and to aid in translocation planning and management, is
also useful for identifying the source of suspected poaching
samples, such as those in the Jones case. Unfortunately, Iowa was
not well represented in this database. Roberg, however, enlisted his
coworkers in collecting nearly 80 reference samples from locations
near the suspected poaching site in Iowa. These samples were
critical in identifying the source of the samples in Jones' freezer.
Decatur County Attorney Lisa Jeanes told the defense attorney the
county was planning to test turkey DNA to determine if it was a wild
bird or a domestic and asked the defense if they were willing to
discuss a plea. The defendant, recalling the 1993 case, declined.
The Utah State University lab is primarily a research lab, so work
on the case had to be fit in among other projects, but officer
Roberg accepted the time constraints. His patience paid off. Testing
took months. Once the tissue samples arrived in Utah, Dr. Mock took
extra care to track samples through a chain of custody form. To
extract the DNA, she set up a double blind system so the lab
technician would not know which sample is which They compare the
test results to the reference samples from Iowa and other places in
the eastern US.
"You go a long way in the lab, not knowing how the work is
progressing, and then at the end you get the results in five
minutes," Mock said. In this case, the samples taken from Jones'
freezer showed a strong association with wild turkeys, and
specifically wild turkeys from southern Iowa.
Once the results were in and presented to the defendant, Jones was
more than willing to accept a plea agreement and avoid going to
trial. Part of the plea required the defendant to pay $1,000 in
restitution that would go toward the cost of conducting the DNA
analysis. If left to a judge to decide, goes the reasoning, the
restitution amount could have gone much higher.
Most of the fish and wildlife violations in Decatur County never
reach the courtroom, Jeanes said. Defendants usually plead guilty,
so the cases do not reach her desk. "This certainly was an unusual
case," Jeanes said. "Had it not been for Craig, I would not have
known this technology was available for use."
"I think it's an important precedent. Wildlife markers have been
used in other species, but not in wild turkeys. I think it is an
important first step," Mock said. Meanwhile, the reference samples
from Iowa have been added to the national wild turkey DNA database,
significantly lowering the cost of analysis in any future poaching
cases from this area.
"It's a database that's growing all the time and that's the kind of
database it is going to take to nail these cases," Mock said.