Wyoming wildlife forensics expert reflects on 35-year career
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — For 35 years, Dee Dee Hawk was solving unusual mysteries, like whether a captured grizzly bear was guilty of attacking a human. Sometimes using only scraps of evidence, she helped put bad guys behind bars and unraveled wildlife-related whodunits when there were no witnesses.
“So many times as a game warden you are on the back end of everything,” said Chad Murphy, a retired Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks regional investigator. “You’re finding what was left behind. Having the ability to utilize a lab and what (Hawk was) able to do was extremely helpful.”
Earlier this month, Hawk’s retirement from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Wildlife Forensics and Fish Health Laboratory was announced. For 12 years she served as the lab’s director.
“Wildlife forensics, when I started, nobody even knew what the heck that was,” Hawk said. “There were very few labs that were doing it.”
The 55-year-old scientist is stepping down to spend more time with her family, working for the construction company she co-owns with her husband Charles Bean, and hunting pheasant with her two wirehaired pointing griffon dogs.
“I like to hunt the wily pheasant,” she told the Billings Gazette. “They don’t fill the freezer very well, but they are a lot of fun.”
Growing up in the small community of Newcastle on the Wyoming-South Dakota border in the 1970s and ’80s, Hawk dreamed of becoming a veterinarian.
“I like animals a lot more than people,” she said.
Unfortunately, her allergies to hay, straw and cats made her rethink the decision. That’s fortunate for the Wyoming Game and Fish because in 1994 the agency hired Hawk to develop the state’s wildlife forensics lab, one of the earliest such labs in the nation.
“I wanted to be a vet from the time I was a very small child, so it was a little bit of a change for me to go from working with live animals to dead animals,” Hawk said. “But we’re still protecting the resource.”
“My passion was always science and animals, so it was a perfect career for me.”
During her laboratory career, Hawk also worked with Ed Espinoza to form the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science. Espinoza, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, called the group a bunch of wildlife geeks. The international organization works to advance the discipline of wildlife forensics in 18 countries.
Espinoza said Hawk was a great ambassador for the group because of her charisma and vitality.
“She’s just a box of energy that never quits,” he said. “She’s involved in so many different things, and she’s good at all of them.”
Hawk leaves behind a program that has garnered attention for unusual wildlife investigations around the nation. The lab serves 14 state wildlife agencies, including the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, assisting in solving crimes.
“Prior to them becoming involved in forensic DNA, we didn’t have a lot of options,” said FWP’s Murphy.
In one of Murphy’s cases, bone marrow was taken from the remains of a bull elk illegally shot and beheaded in Yellowstone National Park. The DNA from that bone matched the DNA from antlers a Montana man was having mounted at a taxidermist.
“The guy went to federal prison for that,” Murphy said. “It was a pretty big deal.”
The most unusual forensic investigation of Hawk’s 27-year career occurred in 2006. She credits a bear with solving an elk poaching investigation.
Four Louisiana men hunting in a restricted area of Colorado poached a six-point bull elk. After the hunters returned to a nearby town, a black bear climbed into the back of their pickup and attempted to haul the elk off.
The hunters tried to shoo the bear away. When it wouldn’t leave, they shot the bruin and called a warden to report the incident. The warden confiscated the bear and questioned the hunters about the elk. An informant later told the warden they didn’t have the right tag to shoot the elk. So the warden searched until he found the kill site in the restricted hunting area.
The dead bear was stored in an agency freezer. Using blood and tissue from the bear’s claws, Hawk was able to tie the elk in the men’s pickup to the illegal kill site. That provided the warden with enough evidence to link the hunters to the crime scene. With a search warrant he confiscated the elk head which then could be tied to the other evidence. The poachers ended up paying more than $16,000 in fines.
“That was probably one of my favorite cases because it was so unique and different,” Hawk said.
Other unusual cases included bear attacks, where humans were the victims and animals were the assailants. In those cases the lab could determine whether a captured bear was the one that mauled the human or not.
Over time, such analysis has become easier with smaller amounts of evidence as the technology has gotten better, she explained. In one case where a pronghorn was poached, she was able to tie the man to the crime scene with only one hair.
The more people know about the ability of investigators in such cases, she said, perhaps that will be a “bit of a deterrent” to committing the crimes in the first place.
“Their work resulted in numerous convictions,” Murphy said. “Sometimes they wouldn’t even go to trial. It’s hard to have a defense against DNA evidence.”
Given the uniqueness of her position, Hawk was an ambassador for the state of Wyoming, traveling to international conferences in Taiwan, Scotland and Australia at her expense to explain the lab’s work. Often she would find herself giving geography lessons since her listeners had never heard of Wyoming, much less knew where it was located.
Although science and wildlife law enforcement are often male-dominated professions, Hawk said she was always treated as an equal. As time has gone by, she’s seen more women in the various fields of science and has promoted her discipline to students through the University of Wyoming, tours of the WGFD’s lab, as well as conferences around the country.
Growing up on Nancy Drew mystery novels, Hawk relished a good whodunit. As an adult, Hawk has played a role in solving crimes using state-of-the-art technology, much like the “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” television show she enjoys watching.
“But we cannot get results in an hour … nor do we wear stiletto heels in the lab,” she said.