DNA detectives aim to root out bigleaf maple poachers

A U.S. non-profit is mobilizing volunteers to help create a database of bigleaf maples along the West Coast, in a bid to stop illegal harvesting.

Volunteers to collect samples from West Coast trees in bid to stop illegal harvesting of old-growth wood

The volunteer collectors will collect leaf samples for DNA extraction and record the field data using a smartphone app. (Adventure Scientists)

Volunteers up and down the Pacific Coast will be collecting samples from bigleaf maples this summer in an effort to end the illegal harvest of the trees.

Because of unique patterns in the wood, bigleaf maples — also known as broadleaf maples — are highly sought after for fine furniture and musical instruments.

While some of the trees are legally harvested, many are poached, says Anya Tyson with U.S.-based conservation group Adventure Scientists.

"It is mostly occurring in Oregon, Washington and coastal B.C.... We are seeing beautiful old-growth trees taken from some of our most beloved public spaces," said Tyson.

That includes Washington's Olympic National Park, state parks and even people's backyards, she says.

Turning data into conservation

"Unlike elephant tusks or tiger pelts, when you just look at a piece of wood there's no way to tell if it was legally or illegally harvested," says Tyson.

That's why Adventure Scientists — a non-profit that mobilizes volunteers to collect environmental data that can be used for conservation — is creating a database of bigleaf maples along the West Coast, from Mexico to the tip of Vancouver Island.

Trained volunteers will collect leaf samples and tree cores from bigleaf maples they see in their travels.

The information will be used to create genetic reference libraries that could help law enforcement officials determine which region a tree comes from.

Adventure Scientists says some of the volunteers will be equipped to collect tree cores and other samples from bigleaf maples for DNA extraction. (Adventure Scientists)

Genetic markers

Tyson says it won't be necessary to track individual trees, just the genetic markers that could help identify where they might come from.

For instance, if a sawmill has paperwork showing a tree comes from Oregon when genetic testing shows it comes from Vancouver Island, that could be enough for police to launch an investigation, she says.

Anyone with the proper training and resources can be taught to collect the data that could help law enforcement officers prosecute tree poachers, she says

"The hope is that this type of technology can be used to get people who are playing unfairly higher in the supply chain," says Tyson.

The technology is already used to protect some species of oak, but Tyson says the bigleaf maple project is much larger in scope.

If the program goes well it could be expanded to other trees such as tropical rosewood and mahogany, she says.

With files from Megan Thomas