CSI Wyoming: How a Laramie lab is solving Colorado poaching cases

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LARAMIE, Wyo. -- Deep inside a freezer at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, boxes labeled 'evidence' are piled to the ceiling.

Inside the boxes are animal remains, many sent from Colorado.

The state-of-the-art lab has been used by Colorado wildlife officials for more than a decade, to help link animals involved in attacks on humans.

But the lab is also playing a major role in cutting down on poaching in Colorado.

"This lab is where we do all of our forensic cases for wildlife crimes," Tasha Bauman said.

Bauman is the Forensic Program Manager for Wyoming Game and Fish, and spends hours every day matching DNA to crimes committed in Colorado.

"A lot of times with poaching crimes, we're trying to link the suspect to the crime scene, and to the victim, which in our case is always the animal," Bauman said.

Early last year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife received a tip that two men were decapitating deer and pronghorn in Elbert and Lincoln Counties.

According to an arrest affidavit, 29-year-old Lawrence J. Cowart and 32-year-old Timothy Draper tried to have multiple heads mounted at a taxidermist in Florida. That taxidermist ended up also being a sheriff's deputy in Flagler County, Florida. Records show the deputy grew suspicious of what the two men were trying to have mounted, and contacted authorities in Colorado after seeing a tag on one of the animals.

Through the Wyoming lab, authorities were able to match the DNA of the mounts to headless carcasses found near Limon, as well as to DNA from Draper's truck.

Both plead guilty to felony wildlife destruction charges, and were ordered to surrender the trophy heads, as well as the guns used in the poaching. They also paid a combined $6,653 in game penalties and fines.

"The ability of their work helps so that wildlife crimes do not go unpunished," Jason Clay, Public Information Officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said. "When someone poaches an animal, they rob natural resources from the citizens of Colorado."

The lab also features what's called a "headless carcass database," where DNA found on a decapitated animal can be stored for years, even decades.

"If an officer comes across a carcass missing its head, they'll collect the tissue sample, and they can send us that sample, and we have what we call a headless carcass database," Bauman said.

That means poaching happening now could still be prosecuted years from now.

"So if they come across the head they suspect belongs to one of the carcasses they found the previous year, they can send us a drilling of the antler or a tissue sample from the freezer and say 'Can you match this up?'" Bauman said.

And while she doesn't always know the story behind the DNA she's testing, she said it's a good feeling to see the headlines months later.

"Until the end of the year or when the case closes, I really don't always know the bigger picture," she said. "But we're solving our cases in here every day."

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