ASHLAND — As the first line of defense against quagga mussels and other invasive aquatic species, Sam Dodenhoff and Eric Ressel are as much guardians as they are matadors.
When Interstate 5 drivers heed the mandatory boat-inspection signs posted along the highway, they pull into the Ashland Port of Entry for a quick inspection of their boats and trailers for any invasive hitchhikers.
But for every driver who stops, another bulls right past, sans any shouts of "Ole."
"There are boats that go by, and I know I've seen them before because I recognize their paint jobs," Dodenhoff says. "Some you see go by a couple of times a week.
"I think a lot of the drive-bys we're seeing are local fishermen who don't think they have to pull in," he says.
But they better think again, because for four hours today, these matadors finally will have swords of sort for the first time, in the form of Oregon State Police troopers.
The troopers will be on hand to track down, stop and perhaps ticket the offenders of Oregon's new mandatory boat-inspection law, allowing the troopers to educate drivers about the fact that ignorance of this law is not bliss.
The troopers will join Dodenhoff and Ressel for a special enforcement operation from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. targeting boat-inspection violators.
During a similar operation last year, the troopers chased down three-dozen violators in a few hours and issued warnings.
This year, that lecture about following the law could come with a $110 ticket.
If the troopers decide to pull out their pads, it will mark the first time in Oregon that motorists have been ticketed for blowing off a boat inspection — finally making the mandatory part of the rule a reality.
"We certainly could write some tickets, but it's kind of hard to say," says Sgt. Kirk Meyer of the OSP's Fish and Wildlife Division, who will be at the inspection station today.
"It's still a fairly new law, so we're not going to be very heavy-handed on it," Meyer says. "We'll probably give a lot of warnings, but we could write some tickets on it."
Rick Boatner wants to see more citations than warnings this go-round. As the invasive species coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, he's glad that compliance is up to about 50 percent, but that's still pretty weak considering the stakes are so high.
Crews at the Ashland site last month discovered a boat infected with quagga mussels picked up while the boat was in Arizona's Lake Havasu.
A boat inspected two days later on Interstate 84 in La Grande contained zebra mussels from Saginaw Bay, Mich.
Both of those boat owners willingly stopped for boat inspections, Boatner says.
The Oregon Legislature in 2009 created $5 invasive species boat permits to fund a coordinated effort to ensure that environmental wrecking balls such as zebra and quagga mussels don't enter Oregon on boats coming from infected waters.
Some invasive species would thrive in local waters because they would be safe from predators or diseases seen in their native habitats, allowing them to reproduce exponentially and out-compete native fish for food and space.
Zebra and quagga mussels do all that and more. The mussels filter zooplankton, altering ecosystems much the way tui chubs did in Diamond Lake last decade. They also can ruin boat engines, jam steering equipment, clog water pipes and cloak a lake bed.
Oregon's three-year-old "Clean Launch Law" makes it illegal to launch any boat with aquatic species clinging to the exterior, including native weeds.
But the inspections were just voluntary at first, and only one in four boat owners initially took heed.
Last year, the Legislature made the requirements mandatory for all boats — from yachts to canoes. Gov. John Kitzhaber signed the revised law in August, just before the end of the summer boating season. That makes this year the first full season of mandatory inspections.
At the roadside inspection sites, clean trailers will be marked. Boats or trailers found with aquatic hitchhikers will go through a free decontamination process that takes up to an hour.
Those northbound I-5 boaters who blow past Dodenhoff and Ressel should have a tough time convincing Meyer they don't deserve a citation.
First, they'd have to miss the large, orange "Boat Inspection Ahead" sign, followed by a white one that says "Inspection Required for All Watercraft." Hardly ambiguous.
That's why Boatner hopes Meyer will be answering the creative excuses he gets with a ticket.
"It's up to the discretion of the officers, but I'll encourage it," Boatner says.