Carcass Queen: Ex-Hanford Reach warden studies poaching crime scenes

GREENOUGH, Mont. -- Deep within the Lubrecht Experimental Forest, death lies inside an electrified fence.

For more than two years, a pack of carnivores has been decomposing under the watchful eye of Carleen Gonder. Piles of maggot casings rim shiny skulls, fangs bared before mummified fur faces.

A hiker once stumbled on the site and thought she'd found a zoo gone literally to hell, assuming the 15 bear, wolf and mountain lion bodies had been abandoned to starve in the woods.

Not true, although the truth is only slightly less ghoulish. Known to her friends as "the Carcass Queen," Gonder has spent all that time monitoring exactly how those bears, wolves and mountain lions return to the dust from which they came.

Gonder has spent most of her adult life defending wild places, as a game warden, park ranger and firefighter. In that time, she's come across scores of abandoned carcasses.

Once, as a lone federal game warden patrolling the Hanford Reach, Gonder knew finding a pair of beheaded mule deer meant trouble. Years of woodcraft and detective skills led her to the spot where the poacher had taken his shot. That recovered a shell casing and a boot print. Modern communications got the word to other wardens, one of whom had just found a suspect with a questionable trophy mule deer rack.

Everything seemed wrapped up, except one unexpected detail. The suspect told his arresting officer -- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Steve Magian, now a game warden for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks -- that he'd also shot six elk. Could Gonder find them, too?

The simple answer was yes. Gonder found the rotting elk carcasses. The hard part was connecting those dead elk to the suspect poacher. Could she prove the elk were killed at the time the suspect was in the Hanford Reach?

The complex answer is also yes: There's a field manual showing how to tell the time of death for most major game animals. It's full of stomach-turning photos showing how quickly insects start laying eggs, how soon flesh starts bloating and when it stops. There are bizarre tricks for hooking muscles to car batteries to see if they're less than four hours dead, and charts to test the reflectivity of drying eyeballs.

A good investigator can get almost the hour of death on a carcass less than four or five days old. The only thing missing from the field guide is whether all these techniques also work on the carnivores that hunt game animals.

Because dead carnivores don't show up at game check stations or hunting camps. They're found deep in the woods, days or weeks or months after dying. In the wildlife world, they're the classic cold cases.

"Everything is geared to ungulates," Gonder said. "But carnivores are hunted too, legally and illegally. I wanted to do the same thing, but look at carnivores."

So she decided to take off her Yellowstone National Park ranger's hat and become a student again. At the University of Montana, she put together an interdisciplinary studies program that combined biology, criminology, anthropology and curiosity. For supervising professor Dan Doyle, the mix was as fascinating as it was unique.

"What Carleen's doing has been pretty groundbreaking," Doyle said. "I haven't seen anything in the literature that covers the times or kinds of species she's done. And I've never seen someone able to do so much with so little."

By that, Doyle explained that other researchers assumed such a project would require $100,000 or more in research expenses -- something requiring big-league grant support.

Instead, Gonder talked some Missoula-area hardware dealers into donating fencing and supplies for a couple of big kennels, along with the gear to electrify the walls. A little solar panel mounted on a tree provides enough electricity to deter any bear or eagle that tries to get at the "fur puddles," as Gonder refers to the remains. The Association of Midwest Fish and Game Law Enforcement Officers contributed funds.

She also had to get wildlife-handling permits from three states: Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. No animals were deliberately killed for her study. All came from roadkills, livestock protection or other unrelated incidents.

"When I was a game warden, I always wanted this kind of training," Gonder said. "I figured others would be hungry for this stuff. Stuff is getting shot and left all the time, and you need all these bricks to build a case. And how much time does a game warden have to go around pounding on doors? Until I did this, none of this had been done with carnivores."

The potential cases are limited only by experience. There's the rancher who claims he shot a wolf that was harassing his cows. Does the time of death match the time he was running cattle in that area? There's the guy who says he had nothing to do with a dead grizzly, except he was working a logging contract in the area the same week the bear died.

For every legitimate incident, there's a poacher with sophisticated hunting gear and expensive lawyers ready to dispute the evidence. Whether it's disagreement with federal protections on endangered species, the thrill of hunting a fellow meat-eater, or a sick need to torture animals, game wardens have no shortage of suspects to chase.

If these cases involved dead humans, there would be a lot of science to back up a prosecutor's charges. And prosecutors have large binders of instructions for teaching jurors what can and can't be believed about "body farm" evidence.

In poaching investigations, that kind of standardized fact-finding has been scarce. Until now.

"There are so many unanswered questions here, things that need more work," she said. "If you chop the head off, you've provided a massive entry point for insects. If you field-dress or quarter it, that all affects the rate of decomposition. This is just the tip of the iceberg."

Gonder said the decision to restart her career track has led to many sleepless nights. It's one thing to be a broke college student with a 4Runner that needs a brake job. It's another to be a 62-year-old broke college student.

"I'm just looking for work right now," she said as she prepared to remove the skeletons and pull down her enclosures. She's defended her master's thesis and completed her paperwork, so the academic effort has borne fruit.

One member of Gonder's academic committee is Dave Oates, who wrote the field manual for time-of-death standards for game animals. He heads a wildlife research lab in Nebraska.

She is also supervised by UM professor Ashley McKeown, an anthropology expert who's done research at the University of Tennessee's Body Farm, which studies how humans decay after death.

Now Gonder's challenge is to make the rest of the law enforcement world pay attention.

So far, it seems to be working. Gonder and a handful of associates have already put on two training seminars detailing her discoveries. The first one, in 2007, filled up in two weeks, drawing 58 people from state and federal agencies.

The second one, last summer, filled up in two days. "The thing about this is it has immediate, practical applications," Doyle said. "A lot of what we do is basic science, and the results are hard to see."