For the First Time, Tree DNA Leads to a Conviction

Timber poacher Justin Wilke gets 20 months
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 10, 2021 6:25 PM CST
Tree DNA Helps Convict Timber Poacher
Investigators at the site where the Maple Fire began.   (USDA Forest Service)

DNA evidence is now solving crimes against trees as well as crimes against people. Justin Andrew Wilke, ringleader of a group of timber poachers that operated in Washington state's Olympic National Forest, was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison earlier this week after the first federal trial to use tree DNA evidence, the New York Times reports. Government research geneticist Dr. Richard Cronn testified that bigleaf maple wood Wilke sold to a mill, using forged permits, was a match so close to the remains of three poached maple trees that the odds of it being a coincidence were 1 in 1 undecillion—1 followed by 36 zeroes. He was found guilty of charges including theft of public property and trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber.

"The type of maple harvested by the defendants is highly prized and used to produce musical instruments," according to a DoJ release. Cronn says researchers built a genetic database of bigwood maple trees in the national forests. Trees have DNA just like other living organisms, which "makes it possible to uniquely distinguish every tree out there if we have the appropriate genetic markers," he tells the Times. One problem, he says, is that separate databases need to be created for different tree species, and poachers target a wide variety of different trees in different parts of the country.

Prosecutors targeted the poaching gang after they burned a wasps' nest at the base of a bigwood maple in August 2018, causing the Maple Fire, which burned some 3,300 acres. A crew member who pleaded guilty to theft of public property and setting timber afire was sentenced to 30 months in 2020, but the jury in Wilke's case acquitted him on fire-related charges. Cronn says researchers have now created a bigwood maple database with samples stretching from the Mexican border to British Columbia, which could help deter timber poachers. "Any time trees are taken in that range can now be investigated," he says. "We will be ready at the next trial." (Read more timber stories.)

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