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University of Maine at Machias builds collaboration and careers with unique wildlife forensics class

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MACHIAS -- Although a deer poaching event played out in the frigid woods behind the University of Maine at Machias last Friday was a mock scenario, Maine Game Wardens Joe McBrine and David Simmons said it mimicked real life. 'I handled an incident exactly like this,'' Simmons told the students in UMM's Wildlife Forensics Class.

The three-hour event highlighted the many collaborative efforts between UMM and the Maine Warden Service and provided the students with a real-life experience - students who plan to be wardens, biologists and researchers. During the class, they interviewed the probable poacher, collected evidence, seized the deceased deer and conducted a necropsy to find the bullet that killed it.

It was a script that UMM faculty and the wardens created: A woman called 911 on Thanksgiving Day 2015 after hearing a gun blast outside her home. She saw a man in a brown truck come out of the woods and take a bow and arrow from his truck. He returned to the woods. Before wardens could arrive, the man met a red car in the road and passed something to the driver.

The large doe deer at the center of the case had actually been hit in the roadway over a month ago in East Machias, put down with a warden's bullet, and had been kept on cold storage until Friday's event. Although the 'perpetrator' - played by Jeff Geel of East Machias - claimed he shot the deer with a bow and arrow, the forensic necropsy revealed a bullet, one the students were able to link to the bad guy with the evidence they had collected. Case closed.

'This is exactly the sort of scenario that the wardens would use in their own training,' Associate Research Professor of Biology Gerard Zegers said.

Hayden Brooks is a junior at UMM junior with the desire to become a Maine Game Warden. 'The hands-on experience we had during class made me feel as if I was an actual warden investigating a crime scene and it was awesome,' Brooks said. ' My classmates were all were engaged and the wardens helped us from interviewing the suspects all the way to finding the bullet used within the illegally shot deer. It was a blast and it makes me excited to know that that's exactly how I want to work day to day as a warden.'

When Warden Simmons asked how many students wanted to be game wardens, several hands went up. The rest were looking into research, biology and related careers. The experience they gain with hands-on projects initiated at UMM cannot be gleaned in a classroom.

'This was a chance for the students to get a highly-realistic but low pressure opportunity,' Zegers said. 'What makes it really unique is the realism.'

As part of the scenario, which was set up by wardens, the students interviewed the 'perpetrator.' They searched his truck. They trudged into the deep snow to inspect the 'crime scene' and recover the deer. They collected evidence, such as boot prints in the snow and a spent shell casing, performed the necropsy and filled out an official incident report. 'This is as real as it gets,' Zegers said. 'This was set up by the wardens. We had a fine actor as the poacher. We had a real animal that had really been shot.'

In other classes as part of the course, Zegers said the students learned about bringing a case to court, evidence preservation and courtroom procedure. The Wildlife Forensics Class is part of the Conservation Law Concentration of the Environmental Recreation & Tourism Management Program.

UMM launched the new Conservation Law Enforcement curriculum this year. It not only supports students seeking to join the Maine Warden Service, Maine Marine Patrol, U.S. Border Patrol, many other state agencies or local law enforcement, but a myriad of careers at national and federal parks and other conservation areas.

Warden McBrine, who also appears in the Animal Planet television series North Woods Law and is a UMM graduate, has been working closely with UMM faculty to create the new curriculum. 'This fits the UMM campus perfectly,' McBrine said. 'We have the lakes, the rivers, the coast and the woods. There is no place else that provides all those opportunities at one campus. Students will be able to take outdoor recreation management classes, science classes, criminal justice classes.'

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