Wild animal poaching, especially white-tailed deer, is a problem in West Virginia; however, with the help of a fellowship from the U.S. Department of Justice, one West Virginia University graduate student hopes to create a genetic database that will help law enforcement combat the issue.
Darren Wood, a doctoral student in wildlife and fisheries resources in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, received a $50,000 award from the National Institute of Justice’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to pursue his research.
“Poaching wild animals is a huge problem, not only in West Virginia but worldwide,” Wood said. “Although white-tailed deer are plentiful within the state, poaching is a big problem because of the huge economic impact that hunting, specifically deer hunting, has within West Virginia. Many small and local businesses depend on hunting activities, and those local businesses are an important economic piece to a very rural state like this one. It is important to understand that when an animal is illegally killed or injured, no one—including the poachers—wins.”
According to Wood, creating a genetic database for white-tailed deer will help prevent hunters from killing deer out of season, keeping everyone on an equal playing field.
There are two primary components that will go into creating that database.
The foundation of the database will be tissue samples collected by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources in 2014 from hunter-harvested white-tailed deer in 19 locations throughout the state.
“The DNA from these samples will then be extracted and specific regions of the DNA are targeted to produce a genotype,” Wood explained. “These genotypes are then run through a series of fine-scale genetic analyses to form genetic neighborhoods.”
Wood will then conduct a series of trials that involve subjecting different tissues – hair, flesh and blood – that contain DNA to a variety of environmental settings, including warm temperatures and UV-radiation, shown previously to degrade the quality and quantity of DNA.
“From there, a variety of genetic markers will be used to determine which markers reliably amplify the specific locations to form a genotype that can be compared to those individuals in the database,” he said.
Wood went on to explain that, in most cases, when animals are poached only a small amount of evidence is left behind and exposure to the elements can break down the minute amounts of DNA contained in the evidence.
Knowing which markers reliably amplify to form a genotype while withstanding the elements – and being able to compare them to an established database – will help DNR officials provide faster results in poaching cases.
“The development of both the database and a panel of reliable genetic markers is really important for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Law Enforcement. Both pieces of the project will help to provide them with accurate results in a timely fashion, therefore expediting the process to resolve cases,” Wood said.
Amy Welsh, an assistant professor of wildlife and fisheries resources who specializes in conservation genetics and wildlife forensics, will oversee Wood’s research and also encouraged him to apply for the fellowship.
“I try to encourage my Ph.D. students to get a lot of practice writing proposals,” she said. “Because this fellowship was with the Department of Justice, Darren had to think outside of the box and think about some novel questions he could ask related to his dissertation project. This is one of the best kinds of experience for graduate students because it helps them develop some important skills necessary for eventually initiating their own research program. I’m very proud of Darren for accepting the challenge and taking his proposal writing to the next level.”
The Graduate Research Fellowship program supports doctoral students engaged in research that advances the NIJ’s mission. Each fellowship provides up to three years of support over a five-year period, and provides an allowance of $35,000 to cover salary or stipend and related costs, and up to $15,000 to cover the student’s tuition and fees, research expenses and related costs.
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