To Protect & Prosecute: Geospatial Technologies in Natural Resource Management

August 5, 2020

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Hopefully, my recent articles have been uplifting, and inspired you to delve into your bookshelves to find atlases, or even pull one from a vehicle, and also investigate the Esri UC proceedings. We’re going to shift to a darker tone today, but there are some happy endings.

In my careers as an archaeologist and GIS specialist, I have seen and used geospatial technologies (GST) for many heroic resource protection efforts, from mapping ancient ruins to eradicating invasive plants and protecting endangered species. Unfortunately, I have also seen the dark side of resource protection.

Across the nation and around the world, sensitive natural resources are being compromised, sometimes deliberately and sometimes incidentally. GST is often a critical component of investigations into WHAT HAPPENED.

This is a challenging topic to cover. Initially, I had hoped to interview investigators and GST specialists to gather first-hand accounts of specific cases. That proved difficult. Understandably, participants in all aspects of criminal activity investigation want to keep the cards close to their vest. Some investigations can go on for years or even decades.

While working for a park agency, I was chastised for discussing an ongoing case with GIS colleagues from another agency.  We were using aerial imagery, GPS tracks and other data to determine if a poaching incident had occurred inside the park boundaries or outside of it. I was proud of our team’s efforts and wanted to share our methodology, but that rebuke made me aware of the importance of patience and confidentiality. “Yes, we’re going to nail this perpetrator, but I can’t tell you how, yet.” Consequently, this article will cover broad strokes, without delving into any names or specific locations.

“Ubiquitous and overlooked”

That is how Bryan Schatz describes technology at the end of his investigative article in High Country News, which details the efforts, and ultimate success, of game wardens at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to break up a “kill for thrill” poaching ring. (Before clicking the link, be advised that this story contains strong language and details of graphic violence.) The officers used a wide range of digital media and geospatial technology to connect a network of poachers to each other and find kill sites.

Despite the gruesome subject matter, this effort illustrates how GST can be integrated with many other investigative methods to solve resource crimes. Officers spent countless hours reviewing videos from phones connected to GPS coordinates, as well as “GPS-enabled dog collars that synced with both handheld devices and systems hardwired into the trucks.” The poachers used dogs to track down bears, bobcats, cougars and other animals to corner and kill them.

“Most violators are narcissistic morons.”

That is my own quote, but it has been said by many resource protection specialists in many fields. I could go on about the many examples I’ve seen, but that would take more pages than we have here.

For whatever reason, criminals are proud of their misdeeds. I have worked on several resource violation cases. In one of them, we were able to identify the culprit thanks to his posting the damage on social media. We saw his vehicle make, model and license plate.

He did doughnuts in a sensitive area that was clearly posted off-limits. Our rangers GPSed every track, then delivered that data to me, and I did some basic GIS analysis. There were over three miles of tracks, two miles of which were the doughnuts. I did a simple buffer analysis to calculate the actual area of impact. Along with the resource damage, he also destroyed research plots that had been there since 1978. All told, the violator was charged with tens of thousands dollars for the subsequent restoration.

In the Washington case above, the criminals also gave themselves away. They used a VHS camcorder (remember those?) with a false date and time to obfuscate the evidence as they filmed and shared their kills. Then…they took a video shot of their GPS unit, showing the actual timestamp and location. The officers were able to sync the analog videos posted on social media with actual times of the various killings.

As Bryan Schatz describes, “[The officers] could finally link up all the different data points. Whenever a truck started, it triggered the GPS system, leaving a breadcrumb trail that revealed where the poachers and their dogs had gone. From there, the wardens would search the phones and, sure enough, find pictures or videos that matched the GPS coordinates. In some cases, Instagram and Facebook posts soon followed. ‘It just perfectly lined up,’ said [an officer].”

 The ending to this exhausting endeavor was successful, but not exactly happy. Wardens discovered hundreds of animals that were slaughtered pointlessly. However, it was worth the effort in that an entire network of kill-for-thrill poachers were brought to justice with the help of GST. It also illustrates how dedicated professionals can integrate spatial and analog data to take pieces of a puzzle and reveal a whole picture.

Not just prosecutions but also solutions

American Ginseng is prized as a naturopathic medicine and has been collected for many generations for both medicinal, and more recently commercial, purposes. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created with great controversy, displacing homesteaders and native Cherokees alike. Nevertheless, people held onto their traditional lifeways, which included harvesting ginseng. Consequently, what was once a lifeway became a crime.

Using various investigative techniques, park staff made numerous convictions and were able to replant some of the stolen plants. GRSM botanists and rangers are using a GST-based database to map and protect existing patches, as well as make maps of poaching sites that can be used in prosecution.

However, the demand for this plant is not decreasing, and where there is money to be made, people will still engage in illegal activities. In this case, one solution has been to increase access to a legal supply. Ginseng can be cultivated, and while sale is still subject to various laws, there are many resources to assist legal cultivation, most of which offer geographic specifics such as slope, aspect, topography and forest cover.

We don’t do crime scene investigation, but...

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has many critical missions: managing the National Wildlife Refuge system, designing and implementing restoration plans for threatened and endangered species, and determining and mapping critical habitat for these species. (They also have a downloadable GIS database.)

USFWS also manages a globally unique operation, the Wildlife Forensics Lab in Ashland, Oregon. When I interviewed the director and asked him if they used GST, he initially said no, “but I wish we did.” Their mission is to “examine, identify, and compare evidence using a wide range of scientific procedures and instruments, in the attempt to link suspect, victim, and crime scene with physical evidence.”

Their evidence comes from across the globe, and may be as small as a piece of fur or as large as an elephant skull. Delving deeper into the conversation, the director indicated they have a rich database for all specimens, which includes the locations from where the evidence was delivered.

Understandably, I wasn’t privileged to look at the database, and the agents whom I attempted to contact were working on current cases and could not disclose any information. It was yet another fascinating glimpse of how GST can be integrated with other scientific tools, including genetic coding and demographic analysis, and also a reminder of how sensitive these data are.

It takes teamwork.

In the park poaching investigation above, we determined conclusively that the incident occurred within park boundaries. What we had to prove was that the poacher knew s/he was inside the park. The lead ranger made his map request clear: Tell a powerful and easily digestible story for the jury. Use strong graphics, big letters and short text.

We had a base map showing the park boundary and locations of the kill and baiting sites. The key to the jury’s decision to convict was having GPS points of the boundary signs and the fence. Intersecting the drag track with these points showed clearly that the poacher had crossed a fence between two boundary signs, both in and out.

The takeaway from these various incidents is two-fold. First, being able to integrate multiple data sources—video footage, GPS tracks, personal interviews, aerial/satellite imagery—is critical. Most important, though, is the essentiality of teamwork. Everyone who worked on these cases was smart and dedicated, all in different ways.

Breaking up a global elephant poaching ring doesn’t require exact locational data, but it does require rigorous investigations. Determining where an individual plant came from, or the exact location of a boundary sign, could depend on which datum is being used, so investigators need GST expertise. Similarly, most GST specialists (myself included) don’t have the capacity to interrogate a heavily armed suspect in his garage.


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