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DNA convicts hunter in bear killing

Thursday, June 07, 2001

By Brian Prince, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Michael Autry pulled a dead bear's carcass out of its den, he may have thought he committed the perfect crime. In the end, however, he would be trapped by DNA evidence -- not from him, but from his quarry, a 240-pound female black bear.

While still uncommon, the use of DNA in Autry's case is part of a growing trend, state game officials said.

"Like all other forms of law enforcement, as the technology becomes available we'll utilize it," said Bruce Whitman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Autry, 27, of Bridgeville, was found guilty last month by District Justice Michael Kennedy of Kane, McKean County, of shooting a bear in its den, a violation of state game laws. The killing occurred Nov. 20, in a remote wooded area near Clermont, McKean County.

Another hunter, who watched from 140 yards away, immediately mentioned the incident to members of his hunting party, and the group recorded descriptions of vehicles in the area. The group then notified the game commission.

Wildlife conservation officer Leonard Groshek responded to the scene and collected blood and hair samples from the bear. Autry, who took the animal to a bear checkpoint station as required by law, said he had killed the animal more than five miles from where the samples were found.

Autry said yesterday he was afraid of getting fined.

"After I had shot it, the guys I was hunting with came over and said I'd better tell them I shot it someplace else," he said.

At the check station, workers took additional samples from Autry's bear, and sent them to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services forensic lab. DNA testing showed that they matched the samples from the den.

Victor Ross, game commission executive director, said the case "demonstrated that the game commission will take advantage of all new technologies that science makes available to us in protecting Pennsylvania's wildlife."

Whitman said very few hunters are investigated for killing bears in dens. Hunters are prohibited from targeting bear dens because female bears found in dens during the hunting season are often pregnant. Also, he said, the practice runs counter to the ethics of hunting.

Autry, who said he plans to appeal his case, blamed the game commission for not being clear with hunters.

"I'm not trying to fight the fact that I shot the bear," he said. "Basically, I said if in their game book they described what a den is, this never would have happened."

Autry has already been fined a total of $1,000 -- $800 for killing the bear in its den and $200 for making fraudulent statements at a bear check station.

He also faces having his hunting license suspended by the game commission for up to three years.

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