News, Science

DNA evidence snags tree thief

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A bigleaf maple leaf. Photo: Flickr, CC, Andrew A Reding

Police detectives have a powerful tool to catch thieves: DNA evidence. DNA has helped solve many crimes; it’s often featured in police dramas on TV.

Recently, DNA evidence from a tree helped catch a man who was stealing trees from a public forest.

DNA is “genetic material” that is in the cells of all living things. It contains information about how a plant, animal or person will look and function. DNA is unique to each living thing. Like snowflakes or fingerprints, no two are exactly alike. Because of that, DNA can be used to identify an individual plant, animal or person.

DNA evidence is often used to solve crimes involving people. Recently it was used to solve a crime against some trees.

Last month, Justin Andrew Wilke was sentenced to 20 months in prison for cutting down and selling trees from the Olympic National Forest in Washington State in the US. A jury found him guilty of the crime, based on DNA evidence from the trees he stole.

In 2018, Wilke and two other men cut down several trees in the Olympic National Forest. The forest is owned by the United States government. It is against the law to cut down trees there.

Bigleaf maples used for musical instruments

The men were stealing bigleaf maple trees. Bigleaf maples are valuable because they are used for making musical instruments, like guitars and violins, as well as for furniture and flooring. A single large tree can be worth thousands of dollars.

Wilke created fake documents that said he had permission to cut and sell the trees. Then he sold the trees to a nearby lumber mill.

Investigators from the US Forest Service discovered the stumps of three trees that had been cut down in the forest. A scientist was able to match DNA from those stumps to trees that Wilke had sold to the mill.

DNA evidence from seven other trees that Wilke had sold showed that they had also been poached from the Olympic National Forest. Their DNA matched samples from a database containing the DNA of 230 bigleaf maple trees in the forest.

This was the first time DNA evidence has been used in a US federal court to convict someone of illegally harvesting trees.

Creating databases of tree DNA is making it more difficult for people to sell stolen trees without getting caught.

In addition to the database for the Olympic National Forest, there is a larger database with DNA samples from 1,100 bigleaf maple trees all along the west coast. Volunteers collect thousands of twig, leaf and wood samples to provide the DNA information.


“DNA” is short for the scientific name of the molecule Deoxyribonucleic acid. Why is Deoxyribonucleic acid known as DNA? Can you think of other words whose short form (or nickname) is letters?

What are some things DNA can predict about a person?

Find out more about the bigleaf maple (yes, bigleaf is one word) here:

What is a database? How was it used here?


DNA for Kids

What is DNA? (video)

Website of the US’s Olympic National Forest: