Oregon State Police troopers will be turning up the heat on wildlife poachers and environmental polluters by tuning in on the heat these criminals generate themselves and with their crimes.

Thanks to a Medford sport-hunting group, OSP's Fish and Wildlife Division here is now armed with a thermal-imaging device that picks up relative differences in body heat emitted from plants, animals, people, vehicles and anything else that is warmer, or colder, than its surroundings, according to OSP.

Wildlife cops can now scan hillsides looking for poached deer and elk lying otherwise camouflaged, or a Rogue River chinook salmon stealthily stashed in the bushes while the fish-poacher angles illegally after dark.

It works best at night, but it's also effective in broad daylight. It can track chemicals or other pollutants in streams so investigators can trace a chemical leak to its source, police say.

The device is even sensitive enough to track someone in the woods or fields in the middle of the night simply by detecting the slight differences in ground heat caused by the disturbance of a footstep.

"Say some poacher is hiding behind a tree at night," says OSP Sgt. Jim Collom from the Fish and Wildlife Division office in Central Point. "If he's completely behind the tree, we can't see him. But if just part of his arm is sticking out, it'll detect it.

Collom accepted the new device Thursday from the Rogue Valley Chapter of the Oregon Hunters Association, which covered the $5,000 price tag. Collum then spent the early part of his shift Friday tinkering with the newest high-tech gizmo.

"We're going out tonight and use it," Collom says. "This will be fun." 

Like elsewhere in the state, the OHA chapter here has a long history of helping outfit the local fish and wildlife cops, purchasing game cameras and helping out with night-vision goggles, says Collom, who also partners with the OHA-funded Turn In Poachers program, commonly called TIP.

While talking with chapter members this past winter, Collom ran off a shopping list of technology that would help them in the field and brought up the thermal-imaging device an OHA chapter in Salem bought for its local cops.

Collom was invited to pitch the idea to the chapter board, which OK'd the purchase in March.

"Sometimes they don't have the funding for what they need, and we don't like poachers, so we get together," chapter board member Stan Alexander says. "This was definitely an anti-poaching thing, so we decided to help out."

Collom says the device, which is built largely for military and law-enforcement uses, will be perfect for OSP's "Scruffy" the deer-decoy deployments, as well.

During decoy deployments, the stuffed black-tailed deer carcass with rebar for hooves and removable antlers is placed off a roadway where OSP has received complaints about poachers casting lights to freeze deer in their tracks and illegally shooting them from vehicles.

Troopers usually hide safely nearby with night-vision goggles to watch the action, but headlights can be blinding if cast their way, and though the goggles can help identify that a shot came from a vehicle, they don't necessarily allow troopers to see who pulled the trigger, Collom says.

"We had a tough time with some cases like that, when there were two people in the dark vehicle with tinted windows," Collom says. "With this, we can see who's shooting."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.