CSI Wyoming: Inside the lab testing Colorado wildlife

Data pix.

LARAMIE, Wyo. -- In the hours after an 8-year-old Colorado boy was attacked by a mountain lion, a massive search spanned the forests of Park County.

Wildlife officers used dogs and traps to try to track down the mountain lion responsible.

The following morning, they received reports of two lions nearby, both matching the description.

Both were put down. To determine which animal was responsible, officials went more than 150 miles away to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

"We have actually been called 'CSI for wildlife,' or 'CSI Laramie' before," joked Tasha Bauman, the Forensic Program Manager for Wyoming Game and Fish, which handles more than a dozen Colorado wildlife cases each year.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife does not have a facility with forensic capabilities, and says it would cost millions to build one here.

"If we were to build a lab of that source, that's millions of dollars that go into it," said Jason Clay, a CPW spokesperson. "So it's awesome for us to have that resource just to the north of us that we can utilize."

In total, 12 different states use the Wyoming lab, with Utah and Kansas currently finalizing contracts to join the list.

CPW's current contract runs through 2021, with Colorado paying Wyoming $25,000 a year for the service.

"It's been very economical for us to use their lab," said Clay.

Records show CPW sent 14 law enforcement cases across the border last year, resulting in 99 forensic samples and 3,086 analytical tests.

"One case could have one sample and they just want to know what kind of species it is," said Bauman. "Another case could have 300 samples with 75 animals in it."

Bauman is able to process tiny amounts of DNA to name a specific species and a specific sex. She can also match that DNA to any found on a human.

In the case of the Bailey mountain lion, Bauman was able to quickly find human DNA on one of the lion's claws.

"In an instance like that -- where we get two known animals that they want to know which one may have committed the attack -- we would start with looking at the claws of the animal, whether it's a lion or a bear, and we would actually swab the claws for blood and do a protein-based test to see if human is present," she said.

In general, Bauman says matches are accurate down to a billionth of a percentile.

"We're fairly confident when we report that we have the right animal," she said.

The Wyoming lab sees 70-80 cases per year, with roughly 5-10 involving attacks on humans.

"With predator attack cases, they get bumped to the top of the list," said Bauman.

Colorado wildlife officers are specially trained to remove portions of the animal at the scene. In the case of the Bailey mountain lion attack, only the paws were sent.

"I've received the muzzle before to take samples of the teeth," said Bauman. "It really depends on what type of attack has happened."

In total, the lab can run forensic analyses on 13 species: elk, moose, mule deer, whitetail deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bears, pronghorn, bobcats, mountain lions, grizzly bears, turkey and sage grouse.

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