DNA Evidence Used in Illegal Bear Killing Case
Armed with DNA evidence and witness testimony, Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officer Leonard Groshek, McKean County, successfully prosecuted a case involving a hunter who killed a bear in a den on the first day of the 2000 bear season.
On May 17, Michael Autry, 27, of Pittsburgh, was found guilty by District Justice Michael Kennedy of Kane, McKean County, of killing a bear in a den and making false or fraudulent statements at a bear check station in an attempt to cover up the crime. Autry was fined $1,000 ($800 for killing a bear in its den and $200 for the fraudlent statement), and he also may lose his hunting/trapping privileges for up to three years. The bear was confiscated and is in the possession of the Game Commission.
Around noon on Nov. 20, in a remote area off of the Shawmut railroad grade, southeast of Clermont, Autry, standing on a large pile of logs, treetops, and brush shot his rifle into what was later proven to be a bear den. Accompanied by members of his hunting party, Autry removed the untagged, ungutted 240-pound sow from the area.
A hunter, who was 140 yards away, immediately reported the incident to other members of his hunting party, including Eric Simcox, a Deputy Waterways Conservation Officer for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Other members of the hunting party recorded vehicle descriptions in the area. Simcox inspected the brush pile and found it contained an obvious bear den - a nest-like depression lined with wood chips and other vegetation with logs inside chewed by the bear.
"Thanks to the quick action of the witnesses, I was able to arrive at the den in just over two hours after the bear had been killed to investigate the violation," said WCO Groshek. "After interviewing witnesses and taking photographs of the scene, I crawled into the den to collect hair and blood samples."
Groshek sent the samples for testing to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. Forensic scientists in the serology department conducted two tests and determined that three samples (the sample collected from the den, a sample collected from the bear and the bear's premolar collected at the bear check station) all originated from one individual North American Black Bear. This evidence enabled WCO Groshek to link the defendant and his illegally killed bear to the site of the kill.
According to Game Commission bear biologist Mark Ternent, who testified as an expert witness at the hearing, pregnant sows tend to den first and as many as one third may be denned by bear season in some years, and thus are removed from the hunted population.
"The timing of our bear season and the fact that it is unlawful to kill a bear in a den, insure that a significant percentage of the pregnant sows are protected each year," Ternent said. "The law also insures fair chase during a bear hunt, for the same reasons it is illegal to hunt through the use of a vehicle, bait or a spotlight."
Autry reported the bear kill at the McKean County check station, as required by law. However, in an attempt to cover his tracks, Autry reported the kill in a location 5.5 miles from where it actually occurred.
The hearing in District Justice Kennedy's office, which lasted nearly two hours, included testimony from: several bear hunters who witnessed the violation; Game Commission biologists and check station personnel; and lab results from DNA testing conducted at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Forensics Laboratory.
"This case demonstrates the importance of hunter involvement," said Vern Ross, Game Commission executive director. "Our WCOs are spread thin, and we must have the support of ethical hunters and the public who witness violations to contact the Game Commission. It also demonstrates that the Game Commission will take advantage of all the new technologies that science makes available to us in protecting Pennsylvania's wildlife. Who would have thought just ten years ago that DNA evidence would be available to a WCO in a remote section of northcentral Pennsylvania trying to figure out who killed a bear in a den?"