U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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Frequently Asked Questions about the Forensics Lab
What does the Lab do?
Frequently Asked Questions about Wildlife Laws
I found a dead eagle [or other protected wildlife species]. What should I do?
What does the Lab do? The National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab is a facility of the US Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement. We provide scientific analysis of evidence in investigations of violations of federal wildlife protection laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and others. The Lab is not involved in enforcement of state hunting laws, unless federal laws are also violated. Our staff includes analysts in the disciplines of genetics, chemistry, pathology, morphology, and criminalistics. These analysts respond to requests for species identification, cause of death, analysis of chemicals including poisons and pesticides, and examination of bullets.
What kind of evidence do you examine? The evidence the Lab receives is incredibly diverse, ranging from whole animal carcasses (for cause-of-death analysis) to objects made from wildlife parts (fur coats, leather boots, feather headdresses, ivory carvings, to name a few) to samples of meat and blood for DNA analysis. We work on almost all groups of federally-protected plants and animals, from tropical rosewood trees to coral to fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals.
Are there other similar wildlife forensic labs? Our Lab is unique in the world in offering a full range of wildlife forensic services under one roof. However, wildlife forensic scientists are at work across the US in a variety of settings, including other federal labs (for example, fisheries labs operated by NOAA), state wildlife labs, and in universities. Reflecting growing international concern about illegal wildlife trade, many countries are working to establish their own wildlife forensics capabilities, and the Ashland Lab is actively assisting in those efforts.
Is the Lab open for tours? No. As a working crime lab, we are not able to offer public tours. However, we offer an extensive virtual Laboratory tour on our website, at: http://www.fws.gov/lab/tour.php. The Lab also has an atrium space inside our front entrance that is open to the public during business hours. This has exhibits and a video slideshow of Lab activities, providing an overview of the work that we do.
Can you identify my [feather/fur/ivory] item? No. We are only able to examine items that are submitted to the Laboratory through official law enforcement channels. However, the Lab website offers a variety of identification information, at: http://www.fws.gov/lab/idnotes.php. For feathers specifically, the Feather Atlas of North American Birds, a website hosted by the Lab, provides high-resolution scans of the flight feathers of hundreds of bird species (http://www.fws.gov/lab/featheratlas/index.php).
How do I train for a job in wildlife forensics? There is no one answer to this question, as wildlife forensics covers many disciplines, including genetics, chemistry, pathology, and morphology, as well as criminal investigation. The best preparation is a strong science background in the discipline of your choice, combined with wildlife-related courses such as conservation genetics, vertebrate anatomy, and evolution. Just remember, there are very few wildlife forensics jobs, so training to be the best scientist you can be in your field of interest will give you the best options. To learn more about wildlife forensic science, visit the webpage of the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science (http://www.wildlifeforensicscience.org/).
Are there volunteer opportunities at the Lab? The Lab occasionally has openings for volunteers with specialized skills or training relevant to the Lab’s mission. Federal rules require that all volunteer applicants go through a background check and other screening. At the present time, there are no volunteer positions available.
I found a dead eagle [or other protected wildlife species]. What should I do? Most dead birds and other animals encountered in the wild should of course not be touched or disturbed. If you find a dead Bald or Golden Eagle in the Rogue Valley and you don’t suspect foul play, you can contact the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife at 541-776-8774 and they will pick up the carcass. If you do suspect foul play (for example, the bird appears to have been shot), contact the Wildlife Division of the Oregon State Police at 541-776-6236. The OSP also has a “Turn-In-Poachers” (TIP) line at 1-800-452-7888. Finally, if you find an injured eagle (or other wildlife), you should call Wildlife Images at 541-476-0222.
I have a collection of bird feathers I’ve picked up. That’s legal, right? Actually, no. Almost all species of native North American birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty (MBTA) – even birds that don’t migrate, like crows. The MBTA prohibits the possession of feathers and other parts from these birds, except for the feathers of legally-hunted waterfowl or other gamebirds, which may be possessed by hunters. This prohibition extends to molted feathers and to feathers taken from road- or window-killed birds. This is surprising to many people, but the reasons trace back to the origins of American wildlife conservation. This became a mass movement in the early 20th century due to outrage over the wholesale killing of egrets and other "plume birds" for feathers to decorate ladies' hats. This resulted in the passage of laws to regulate the commercial trade in wildlife, specifically including feathers. These laws remain important for prosecuting dealers in wild bird feathers, who continue to operate both in the U.S. and internationally.
Are there special rules for possession of feathers by Native Americans? Yes. Registered members of federally-recognized tribes may legally possess native North American bird feathers, including eagle feathers. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has established the National Eagle Repository in Colorado to provide eagle feathers to tribal members (http://www.fws.gov/eaglerepository/). However, sale or barter of eagle feathers by tribal members is illegal.
What are the laws related to possession and sale of ivory? In response to a catastrophic increase in poaching of African elephants for the illegal ivory trade, the US Fish and Wildlife Service adopted strict new regulations in 2014. The rules are complicated, and are still under revision. For the latest information, visit http://www.fws.gov/international/travel-and-trade/ivory-ban-questions-and-answers.html. Briefly, personal possession of ivory taken before 1976 (when the African elephant was protected by international treaty) is allowed. However, sale of items containing ivory is generally prohibited unless the seller can prove that the object was legally imported before 1990 (when almost all international trade in elephant ivory was banned). Details on what documentation is considered adequate proof can be found at the FWS ivory website above.
A variety of federal laws protect both native North American and international wildlife species. For detailed information, visit the website of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement at: http://www.fws.gov/le/laws-regulations.html. The brief summaries below are for general information, and are not definitive legal advice.