Commissioners hear from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Western Carolina on animal attack
Published 6:38 pm Thursday, July 11, 2019
The following is the second of two stories detailing presentations by various agencies to the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners regarding a fatal animal attack in Pantego in February. The first part of the story appeared in the Wednesday edition of the Daily News and can be read online at www.thewashingtondailynews.com.
An investigation into the animal attack that killed Pantego resident Benda Hamilton in February had a closer look from the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners during its regular meeting on Monday.
Commissioners heard from four professionals representing the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and Western Carolina University’s Biology and Forensic Science Program. Each spoke on their agency’s role in investigating the attack.
U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE
Representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Raleigh Field Supervisor Pete Benjamin said two questions that came up for his agency were regarding the proximity of red wolves to the scene and the presence hybrids in the area.
According to Benjamin, there are 14 collared red wolves, of a total of 25 wolves, in the five-county area of the Albemarle Peninsula. One of these wolves resides in Beaufort County, north of Belhaven. He said that according to radio collar data from two days before, the nearest red wolf at the time of the attack was located in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Washington County.
“We don’t have exact locations of these animals and since we only track once or twice a week, we don’t have detailed movement patterns,” Benjamin said.
As for hybrids, the red wolf bears a close relation to coyotes and the two have been known to interbreed. Benjamin said the USFWS estimates there are few such creatures in the wild, however, as the agency has maintained an aggressive management strategy of removing the hybrids.
“In the last 100 years, there have been no wolf attacks on people in the 48 contiguous United States,” Benjamin said. “There have been a couple in Alaska, but there has never been an attack by a red wolf on a person, but also grey wolves and Mexican wolves.”
Following Benjamin at the podium, WCU geneticist Maureen Hickman walked commissioners through her methodology for testing evidence collected from the scene of the attack. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission initially contacted Hickman when the possibility of a bear attack had not yet been ruled out. Hickman had previously done work for NCWRC investigating bear attacks in the Great Smokey Mountains.
Hickman explained her lab dealt with two types of DNA during the investigation — nuclear and mitochondrial. Nuclear DNA contains material from both the mother and father, and can be used to identify a specific animal. Mitochondrial DNA, meanwhile, only contains genetic material from the mother, and can be used to identify an animal’s species.
Of the 33 items tested at the WCU lab, only two yielded nuclear DNA. Samples from Hamilton’s shoe and outer jacket were a positive match to two domestic dogs that were found with her at the scene of the attack. Five other items yielded mitochondrial DNA, which Hickman says came from domestic dogs.
No DNA from bears, coyotes or red wolves was detected during the testing. Stool samples tested from both domestic dogs at the scene yielded no reliable results.
“All the markers I used should have picked up coyotes and red wolves, especially the mitochondrial markers, and I never found any evidence of that,” Hickman concluded.
Once the speakers finished their respective presentations, commissioners had the opportunity to ask their own questions, most of which focused on red wolves, coyotes and hybrid animals.
At the end of the meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to hire a third party DNA expert to review the evidence a second time. The BCSO, meanwhile, agreed to work with the USFWS and NCWRC to perform further analysis on hair samples recovered from the scene of the attack, specifically comparing them to samples from red wolves and coyotes.