Wyoming Wildlife - December 2021

Accredit Accomplishment

Fish health is part of the work done by the lab. It also inspects aquaculture facilities such as hatcheries.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Wildlife Forensic and Fish Health Lab earned top national accreditation in 2021

12/7/2021 4:11:32 PM

It takes a lot of work for a scientific laboratory to earn accreditation. Only the best labs can achieve it, and it’s a well-recognized sign of excellence and expertise in the science community. For the staff at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Wildlife Forensic and Fish Health Lab, the task was the next step in taking the already world-famous lab to the next level. After more than a year of rigorous preparation the lab received accreditation through the American National Standards Institute’s National Accreditation Board in early 2021. Accreditation is the process in which an unaffiliated agency ensures a laboratory is meeting specific standards. The process includes an assessment of the lab’s technical qualifications and competence for conducting specific testing activities. Accreditation provides valuable oversight by ensuring someone outside the laboratory has confirmed that the lab is following their required procedures.

The accreditation is good for five years, and the facility must be audited each year. The lab provides forensic work, tooth aging and fish health services for Game and Fish, as well as a dozen other states. “The lab ensures that Wyoming’s wildlife is defended in courts and is properly managed by providing scientific data to game managers,” said Kim Frazier, laboratory director. Accreditation demonstrates the lab is operating competently and generates valid results for its clients, thereby promoting confidence in its work. “Accreditation is the bar all labs want to reach,” Frazier said.

The list of requirements for accreditation is long and stringent. A lab must develop a Quality Management System to establish and control work processes, manage resources, conduct evaluations and make continual improvements to ensure consistent quality results. Frazier and her staff worked tirelessly on a QMS to prove all the lab’s processes and procedures met the accreditation standards. “We had to show them examples of procedures we do in the lab, and demonstrate that we do it accurately and safely,” Frazier said. Meeting the stringent requirements was challenging enough, but doing so during a global pandemic upped the ante and created additional hurdles for lab personnel to clear. Normally, assessors from ANAB would tour alaboratory to ensure it meets the guideline for accreditation, but COVID-19 prevented an in-person visit. “We carried a laptop around and gave them a virtual tour of the facility and demonstrated how we do our procedures, all over the internet,” Frazier said.

In December 2015 the U.S. Department of Justice announced its intent that within the next five years it planned to require labs that receive federal funds to acquire and maintain accreditation. The new policies arose out of recommendations made by the National Commission of Forensic Science to ensure that reliable and scientifically valid evidence is used when solving crimes. While this announcement was only aimed at federal labs, it is possible accreditation will eventually be required for all forensic labs. At the time, the Forensic and Fish Health Lab was still housed at the University of Wyoming, where it had been located for more than 60 years. “The former facility on the UW campus was too small and would have prevented the lab from meeting mandatory accreditation requirements,” Frazier said. These requirements were a driving force for finding a new home for the lab. It resulted in a new facility that opened in 2018 as part of Game and Fish’s regional office in Laramie. At 19,000 square feet, the new facility is nearly four times the size of the old lab.

“The new facility provides additional space and upgrades that made accreditation a reality,” Frazier said. It also provides separate workspace for forensics and fish health. In the old facility, the fish health staff shared space with forensics and DNA testing equipment, which would have prevented accreditation of the forensic laboratory. Each year the forensic lab works on 70 to 80 cases involving poaching of Wyoming’s wildlife. Forensic studies provide game wardens with necessary proof in law enforcement cases. A scientist at the lab can take a small sample of blood or hair from the back of a pickup and match it to a gut pile left in the field, a taxidermy mount or antlers or horns from an animal. The lab’s work has resulted in hundreds of convictions for poaching crimes. “Accreditation helps with credibility in court and ensures we are doing the best science possible,” Frazier said.

Because of the sensitivity of criminal cases, much of the accreditation requirements for the forensic lab are related to security. “We handle a lot of physical evidence for pending poaching cases, such as antlers, tissue, blood, guns, arrows and saws, so the lab must have strict security to maintain accreditation status,” Frazier said. “We have to keep our forensic evidence protected and control who comes into the lab. The doors to the lab are always locked and there are strict security measures in place. Only lab personnel can access the lab, and any other person needs an escort.”

While Game and Fish was paying to have the forensic lab accredited to meet federal requirements, it only made sense to have the tooth aging and fish health labs accredited under the same process. “We all work in the same facility so we had these two labs accredited for testing at the same time,” Frazier said. “There are only a few accredited wildlife forensic labs in the country, and we’re the only state fish health lab that is accredited, and the only tooth aginglab that is accredited.”

Fish health inspects aquaculture facilities and looks for parasites, bacteria and viruses in the fish. “We do this before we stock or trade any fish. We also examine fish sent to us from the aquaculture facilities to determine the cause of illnesses and recommend a possible treatment,” Frazier said. A tank room in the new facility provides space to house live fish, which allows for possible research on fish disease. Each year the tooth aging program receives approximately 4,000 teeth from 11 different species. Deer and elk comprise the majority of the teeth. Biologists combine tooth age information with harvest field-check data, harvest survey results, classification information and population estimates in their annual and long-term analyses of big game and trophy game populations. The tooth aging section also ages teeth for hunters harvesting animals outside the department’s study areas for a $25 fee. Hunters can learn the age of their harvested animal by visiting the Game and Fish website. “This service is popular with the public,” Frazier said.

The Forensic and Fish Health Lab has a long history of serving the public. Plans for the lab began in 1947, and it opened on the UW campus in 1948. In the beginning it was combined with the department’s Wildlife Disease Lab and was one of the first of its kind in the nation. Early efforts diagnosed diseases of game animals, furbearers and game birds and recommended treatment and control measures. The lab soon expanded into the arena of analytical chemistry, including the detection of poisons and other toxins and the nutritional requirements of game animals, as well as isolation and identification of bacteria from tissues.

In 1953 the lab added the fish health program and began researching fish diseases, nutrition, and toxicants and conduction water analysis for fish habitat and hatchery development. Wildlife forensic services were added in 1965. Later restructuring in 1985 separated the Wildlife Disease Lab from the Forensic and Fish Health Lab. The disease lab moved into its current location in the Wyoming State Veterinary Lab building in Laramie.

Throughout its history, the Forensic and Fish Health Lab focused on work that has direct application to game management. Everything at the lab is done to provide information that can help improve wildlife management techniques, and earning accreditation demonstrates the lab’s continued commitment to Wyoming’s wildlife. “This national level accreditation recently achieved by our forensic lab speaks to not only our exceptional staff and their dedication to science standards, but also highlights how we continue to strengthen forensic sciences for Wyoming and our wildlife,” said Eric Wiltanger, services division chief for Game and Fish. The Forensic and Fish Health Lab celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1998 and is now approaching its 75th anniversary. The new facility and prestigious accreditation should allow the lab to continue to serve the people of Wyoming well into the future. “We have always been following the standards required for a forensic lab,” Frazier said. “Now we are accredited to them.”

— Robin Kepple is the education and information specialist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for the Laramie Region.


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