This column was conceived as a way to help the reader understand how conservation law enforcement officers use investigative methods in the field to help find and prosecute people who are hunting and fishing illegally. The intent is not to make anyone an expert in forensics, but to demonstrate how officers are able to use field forensic methods to make sense out of evidence gathered.

A good investigator will collect and analyze the evidence at hand to form a picture of what happened, how it happened, and what to look for as the investigation moves forward.

The basics of any investigation are always answering the same six questions; where, when, what, how, why and ultimately who. Let's go through an investigation and see which of these questions we can answer from evidence found at a kill site.


An officer receives a call about a dead deer that appears to have been shot and left in a landowner's field. The landowner discovered the dead animal, which he thinks is a small white-tailed buck, this morning.

The carcass was already cold when he discovered it, so he thinks it has been there at least overnight. He did not see or hear any unusual vehicle activity over the previous 24 hours nor did he hear any shooting
during that time. The landowner has no idea who might have been involved and has not had any trouble with illegal hunting in the past.

The officer thanks the landowner for the call and makes a note in his diary to attend the following day when priorities allow. Given that there is no indication of a risk to public health or safety, there are no suspects
to catch “red handed”, and there is no evidence that is time sensitive, he will make time in the next day's schedule to investigate. The following day he locates the carcass along the edge of the field as described by the landowner. It is lying a couple of metres off the swathed portion of
the field, just over a small hill. As he walks up to the dead deer he notices something about it that gives him reason to believe that the shooter had a close look at the animal after he shot it then chose to abandon it.

Take a look at Picture 1 and see if you can see anything that might cause the animal to be abandoned by an unethical hunter. The deer is cold and stiff, confirming that it has been dead for a time period of more than a few hours.

Picture 1: Initial look at the dead deer.

In any investigation involving the death of an animal, the investigator must prove that the animal's death was the result of
causes other than natural or accidental. He must be able to testify as to the direct cause of death, the manner of death, and the
method of death. These three components are collectively referred to as proximal or underlying cause of death, but, in fact, are three separate and distinct parts of the process. Let's look at some quick definitions:

Direct Cause of Death – Physical failure of any part of an animal that caused the animal to die.

Manner of Death – Action resulting in the physical failure of any part of an animal that caused the animal to die.

Method of Death – Delivery method of the action that resulted in the physical failure of any part of the animal that caused the animal to die.

Later on, we will apply these definitions to the case and see how we come out. In determining the proximal cause of death, the officer is first going to look for a bullet hole. Bullet holes are very good indicators that the animal's death was neither natural nor accidental (i.e., not hit by a vehicle).

When an officer finds the bullet hole, the next task is to find the bullet itself in case it can be matched up to a firearm that may show up during the investigation. A high powered rifle bullet entering an animal's body will, in most cases, be
considered to be the proximal cause of death and will encourage the officer to investigate further. In this case, a bullet entry wound was located high on the back of the neck of the animal.

Now it is time to try to find the bullet itself so that characteristics of the rifle that fired it can be determined. One of the best field methods that I know of is to insert a piece of wooden dowel in the entry wound and thread it down the channel left by the bullet. The dowel will easily follow the path left by the bullet and will end where the bullet stops or has been deflected. The officer can then pin-point the bullet using a metal detector and dissect the animal until the bullet or fragments of the bullet are found.

At the same time, he hopes to make a determination of the direct cause and manner of death. In this case, the dowel clearly leads the officer to examine the mouth and lower jaw of the dead animal. See Picture 2.

Picture 2: Using a piece of wooden dowel to determine the bullet path and location.

As an added bonus in this case, once the officer determined that the direct cause of the animal's death was a severed spine, it was immediately obvious that the deer dropped exactly where it was standing. This gave the officer an opportunity to visualize the violation and determine a likely shooting spot. As it turns out, the shot was most likely taken from the small hill behind where the deer was standing. It was, it appears, shot from the grassy knoll!

But, back to the case at hand. The officer has now had the opportunity to do a very close examination of the dead critter, has found the bullet entry wound, has used the dowel to determine the bullet path and, with the aid of his trusty metal detector, has found some bullet fragments.

Picture 3: using a metal detector to pinpoint the bullet fragments.

In looking back at our definitions, we can say that the proximal cause of death was being shot in the neck and head. Further to that we would suggest that:

Direct Cause of Death: Severe fracturing of the spine/neck causing instant paralysis and death;

Manner of Death: An object passing along and through the spine and neck area;

Method of Death: A single bullet from a high powered rifle.

Putting it all together, the officer would write in his notebook that the animal was killed by a single high powered rifle bullet that entered its neck and travelled along and through the spine causing severe fracturing of the neck and spine resulting in the instant or near instant death of the animal.

This gives the officer plenty to talk about if asked how and why the animal died and is very important when testifying in court.

Field Forensics
After obtaining the bullet from the dead animal, the officer turns his attention to the possible shooting site atop the grassy knoll. By retracing vehicle tracks along the edge of the field, he comes to a place where a vehicle appears to have stopped andbacked up. He assumes that this may be the place where the vehicle occupants had first seen the deer while driving along the edge of the field. Looking at the tracks and the location of the dead deer, and keeping in mind that the deer likely dropped where it was standing when shot, the officer surmises that the shooter was travelling in the vehicle along the side of the field, came around a corner from behind the small hill and spotted the buck standing there. The vehicle was reversed to a position where the deer could not see it and the shooter exited the vehicle. The shooter then moved to a position along the crest of the hill where he could see the deer and fired one
shot directly into the back of the deer's neck. This killed the animal instantly. With this in the back of his mind, and using the information gained from the dowel pointing up the hill, the officer surveyed the area just below the crest of the hill away from the deer's location. In a very short amount of time, the officer discovered footprints and found a spent casing. The footprints and the tire tracks were photographed and the casing was collected.

Field examination of the evidence at hand gave the officer quite a bit of information. The bullet which was retrieved from the dead animal measures approximately .247 inches in diameter. Taking into account the fact that the bullet itself would have deformed and that field measurements cannot be exact, we would surmise that the bullet was fired from a .243 or 6 mm calibre firearm. A closer look at the bullet reveals six lands and grooves which show a right hand twist. The casing found at the likely shooting sight was also a .243 calibre, giving us confidence that we are looking for a .243 calibre rifle with a barrel that has six lands and grooves with a right hand twist. This information will be sent to a forensic firearms lab that will return a number of potential firearms to look for.

Going back to the original six questions, the officer already has some answers.

Where? This was a given. The scene of the violation is at the location where the deer was found and where the shooting took place. Sometimes, there may be a third location when an animal is shot at one place and ends up dying at another. This was not the case here.

When? Again a given. The evidence in the field is consistent with the landowner's estimate of the time of death.

How? Our “Cause of Death” examination reveals one bullet to the back of the deer's neck that killed it instantly.

Why? In this case, we can only guess why the animal was abandoned after being shot, but in all likelihood the shooter walked up to it, noticed the missing antler, and decided to look for a different “trophy” (at least that's my guess!).

Who? Although we do not have a name, we do know some things about our shooter. This person shoots a .243 rifle that has specific firing pin, breach face, and land and groove characteristics. Their footwear and tire impressions are recorded and, if the investigating officer finds someone associated with the firearm in question, the impressions can be used to compare with the footwear and tires of that person. The officer does not have a name, but has some valuable evidence to ultimately answer this question.

In the meantime, the officer will simply keep an eye out for a .243 rifle with that particular land and groove pattern. He will also look out for hunters with footwear and tires that have similar patterns to those photographed at the kill site.

Should he check a hunter whose rifle matches this description, he needs to determine if he has reasonable and probable grounds to investigate further. This may mean taking a statement from the hunter and his companions, seizing evidence and/or even obtaining a search warrant should the officer feel it necessary to gather more evidence. The length to which the officer will need to go will be dependent on many factors, but with the forensic evidence collected at the shooting site, he is well on his way to solving this case.

Finally, if this matter should end up in court, a forensic examination of the bullet and the casing along with any other seized articles, conducted by a certified forensic laboratory, will be needed to ensure a successful prosecution.

This is an example of an investigation that any officer across North America might undertake on any given day. Unfortunately cases of “shot and left” animals are not always solved and the persons responsible are not always caught. This allows them to continue to waste the resources that the rest of us take great pride in conserving. A conservation law enforcement officer's greatest allies are hunters or landowners.

You are the ones that are out there on a daily basis and are in constant contact with other outdoors people. When a hunter or landowner comes across an animal that has been shot and left, they may see no use in reporting it because they don't feel that there is anything the officers can do.

I hope that after reading this article, you will see that there is plenty of evidence that an officer can obtain from any violation scene.

Help our officers prosecute those that steal our wild resources by reporting any infractions you may come across.

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