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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 2, 2007

Fishers leading a life of crime"
Fingerprints track wayward animals

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALBANY COUNTY — Carbon dust and contact paper, sticky side up, aren’t used in the forensics lab, but, for the New York State museum, they serve the same purpose as dansyl chloride or fingerprint-lifting tape.

Like human fingertips, fishers’ paws have unique patterns, and a research team at the museum has begun fingerprinting them as a way to track their population. The project, said Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the museum, "has its roots in the basic question: How do you know where an animal lives""

A relative of the weasel, fishers are one of the biggest members in that family, Kays said; they generally grow to be between eight and 10 pounds. The lowest point for their population numbers was in the 1930s, he said, when they were trapped for their fur. In the last decade of the century, though, the Fisher population exploded, he said. So far, his research team has found that fishers are the second most abundant carnivore in the Adirondacks, behind coyotes.

"They’re one of the best species to kill porcupines," said Kays, which is important because the prickly rodents can do a lot of damage to forests and trees. "They’ll sort of spin around and bite the porcupine in the face," he said, thereby avoiding its quills.

Porcupines, too, likely have unique prints on their feet, Kays said. The prints from porcupine feet are scaly, he said, rather than the swirly appearance of human fingerprints or the dot patterns on fishers’ paws.

"Things that climb trees, it gives more friction to have prints," Kays said of how some animals evolved to have distinctive patterns.

After his group put track boxes throughout the Adirondack Park and got good prints from fishers using the contact paper and carbon powder, Kays said, "We were sitting there looking at the prints and saw all these patterns." But, he recalled saying at the time, "We don’t know anything about fingerprints."

Seasoned sleuth

In 2000, the scientists working on the project asked the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services for help in matching the prints.

"What he’s trying to do is very similar to crime-scene fingerprints," said Richard Higgins, a 35-year veteran of DCJS, who spent a number of years in the latent fingerprints department. A latent fingerprint is one that is not apparent to the eye, but can be made visible by dusting or fuming for use in identification.

"Latent fingerprints especially is a very challenging, very rewarding experience," Higgins said of finding a match for a partial print left behind at a crime scene. "It’s almost like magic."

That process is very similar to matching a footprint left in a track box by a fisher scavenging for a chicken wing, said Higgins. In both cases, investigators are often working with only partial prints.

"The difference between fingerprints and fisher prints is fingerprints are continuous ridges with bifurcation, enclosures, and islands," he said, while fisher prints are more like patterns of dots. Higgins tried entering some of the fisher prints into the state’s computer system, but the system is set up to read ridges and bifurcation, he said, so it didn’t work well for matching fisher prints.

The museum research group has come up with a system for visually identifying matches; in its paper on the project, it says, "In the process of teaching this technique to others, we learned that some biologists have more aptitude than others for spatial pattern recognition and matching, a fact long recognized by those hiring criminal fingerprint technicians."

It is always a person who makes the identification in the crime lab, said Higgins. "The machine only spits out a number of candidates that are close," he said. "It’s not like CSI," he said, referring to the popular TV crime show, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Human ingenuity has always been part of fingerprint detection, and tracking fishers based on their prints is not the first fingerprinting innovation to come out of Albany. In the 1850’s, John Maloy, a police constable in Albany, solved a burglary case by using a positive identification from a crime-scene fingerprint, according to a recent book by Simon Cole.

A bloody thumbprint was found on a piece of broken glass in the window of a house that had been robbed. It was matched by Maloy with an imprint of the suspected burglar’s thumb.

"If the thumbprint story is true," Cole writes, "then Maloy deserves credit for making the earliest known use of fingerprints to solve a crime, predating what historians had previously believed to be the earliest such instance by around twenty years."

Pioneering isn’t easy, though. To get their system right, Kays said, "it took a year or two of fiddling with it."

Plans to be aired for $9M road rehab

By Rachel Dutil

ALBANY COUNTY – A $9 million highway rehabilitation project proposed for Normanskill and Johnston roads in the towns of New Scotland and Guilderland will be the subject of a public meeting next Thursday.

Normanskill Road – County Route 306 – becomes Johnston Road, County Route 203, and runs between routes 155 and 20.

The project is still in the design phase, and fits into the five-year capital plan for the county, said Michael Franchini, the commissioner for Albany County’s department of public works. The project budget is $9 million, he said; it would be funded solely through the county.

At this point, the existing conditions on the four-mile stretch of road have been identified, said Jeff Pangburn, an engineer with Creighton Manning Engineering, working on the design for the project. The next step is "to get feedback on what constraints are most important to residents," he said.

"We want to try to work with property owners to address their concerns," said Pangburn.

The Aug. 9 meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Westmere Elementary School gymnasium on Johnston Road.

"We hope to have the design ready for construction next year," Franchini said.

Franchini outlined five goals for the project. First, is the addition of a five-foot wide sidewalk along Johnston Road from Solarview Estates to Route 20.

"Whenever we reconstruct a road, we try to include a sidewalk," Franchini said. A five-foot wide sidewalk is standard, and complies with the American with Disabilities Act, he explained. "Anything less is substandard," Franchini added, noting that sidewalks that are not five feet wide are likely quite old.

The second objective is to widen the shoulders on the roadway to accommodate bicyclists. "Some county roads are not wide enough for bicycles" and cyclists must ride in the travel lanes, said Franchini. "It is much safer to ride on the shoulder," he said.

The third goal is to reconstruct the existing pavement. "The pavement is wearing down and deteriorating," Franchini said of the roadway, explaining that each year the county conducts pavement rating tests on its roads.

Pavement rating is "a relative objective measurement," said Franchini. The rating and the road’s history of repair weigh heavily into the assessment of the need for roadwork, he explained.

Fourth, the project will also improve sight distance and, fifth, reconstruct the existing drainage system. The objective, said Franchini, is to bring the roadway up to standards. "There are some features that don’t meet modern-day standards," he said.

Creighton Manning Engineering has done projects for the county before, Pangburn said. The goal of the design is to do a "best fit" throughout the corridor and to "try to minimize impact," he said.

Drainage is a "key" concern, Pangburn said. The idea is to try and maintain the natural water pattern, he said.

This stage of the project is an ideal time to get residents’ feedback, Pangburn said, adding that sometimes a property owner has a better idea of how a certain aspect of a project would best be handled.

One issue, he said, is that in order to accommodate the sidewalk, the county will need to acquire small strips of land on numerous properties. This is an obvious concern to property owners, he said.

Pangburn plans to hold another public meeting in the late fall or early winter, before construction begins.

"We want to inform them of the process and allow them to weigh in on it," Pangburn said. "The sidewalk really improves the quality of life for all the residents in that area," he concluded.

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