Public, plane, "Robo Elk" help fight Oregon poachers

By Dan Cook

PORTLAND, Oregon (BestGrowthStock) – It was a picturesque western Oregon wilderness scene this month, one day before the opening of elk-hunting season.

A large herd of elk grazed placidly in a wide meadow in Tillamook County as dawn broke. A handful of early risers observed the herd from the edges of the meadow.

As they watched, a pickup truck came up the country road adjacent to the meadow. A young man jumped from the cab, raised a hunting rifle, and started to fire on the herd. A spike bull elk fell to the ground.

The early risers leapt into action. Members of a logging crew descended on the poacher, blocking his truck so he couldn’t escape. Others surrounded the man, later identified as Bryant Robles, 31, and detained him until Oregon State Police (OSP) could arrive and arrest him for taking elk out of season.

An isolated case? Not in Oregon, where the citizenry takes both hunting and its laws quite seriously.

“Poachers steal from everyone,” said Oregon State Police Sgt. Todd Hoodenpyl. “They are criminals and should be treated as such. And there are a lot of honest hunters out there who don’t like it when someone breaks the rules.”

With its wealth of wilderness lands and wide array of game, Oregon is a hunter’s paradise. It’s also a tough place to enforce the game laws.

The OSP have only 100 Fish & Wildlife officers assigned to field duty to enforce the laws in a state stretching from the rugged Pacific coast in the west across the soaring Cascade mountains to sparsely populated high desert country in the east. So other means also are used to help keep poaching under control.

One is the code of the hunting community. “If you pay for a license and abide by the rules, you don’t like to see someone else sidestepping those rules,” said Sgt. Chris Allori, with OSP Fish & Wildlife in Portland.

“TIP” LINE

Taking advantage of that sense of propriety, OSP set up a “TIP” line — Turn in a Poacher — that has proved to be wildly successful. The public can call the number any time, day or night, year-round to report game law violations.

The Oregon Hunters Association offers rewards of up to $1,000 for tips leading to arrests, although most of the time, tipsters refuse the reward money.

“The TIP line gets hundreds of calls during hunting season,” Allori said, “everything from concerned citizens to someone seeking revenge. We try to investigate them all. People aren’t doing it for the reward money. They’re usually doing it because they just don’t like what’s going on.”

One tip led police to a rural home in eastern Oregon. Upon entry, police found not only illegally harvested deer meat in the family freezer, but an indoor forest of marijuana plants — including some mature plants hanging over a child’s crib to dry. Lucas Forrest, 25, was cited for unlawful taking of deer. The drug case is under investigation.

“ROBO ELK”

In addition to help from the public, Fish & Wildlife use technology to fight the poachers. “Robo Elk” is the centerpiece of this effort.

Robo Elk is a robotic elk donated to OSP in 2009 by the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust. The full-sized “elk” swings its majestic head in an arc, bends to graze and flexes its muscles in strikingly realistic fashion.

Robo Elk is androgynous and ageless. Its antlers can be removed to turn a buck into a cow or a doe, and it has several pairs of antlers to represent various stages of maturity. That way, OSP can plant Robo Elk in poacher-frequented areas in a variety of hunting seasons to lure illegal hunters.

Typically, OSP deploys decoys in areas where poachers have been using spotlights at night to help them hunt deer, or during daylight hours in locations where there have been reports of other hunting laws being frequently violated.

It doesn’t take long for Robo Elk to draw unfriendly fire, said Senior Trooper Adam Turnbo, who coordinates the OSP’s Wildlife Enforcement Decoy (WED) program. Generally Robo Elk and his/her sibling decoys (deer, turkeys and other types of elk) aren’t in the field more than a few hours.

“We have someone hidden in the brush watching, and a chase car a little further away,” he said. “Someone takes a shot at Robo Elk, we’re on them right away.”

OSP also often uses an airplane to spot fleeing poachers during its night investigations. “It’s easier to follow the headlights from the air,” Turnbo said.

The decoy program works: In 2008 and 2009, decoys led to 250 citations for hunting violations. Although most of the violations are misdemeanors, they carry jail sentences and fines of up to $6,250. If you’re going to tangle with Robo Elk, you have to be prepared to pay the price.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

Public, plane, "Robo Elk" help fight Oregon poachers