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If it's movin', it still might be a decoy

Some of Oregon's more seasoned elk poachers have learned to side-step getting caught in a backwoods wildlife-enforcement-decoy sting by following the mantra, "If it ain't movin', they ain't shootin'."

"In fact, we even hear them yell that to each other," says Lt. Steve Lane from the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division. "They know that if it doesn't move, it's probably a decoy."

Let poachers keep thinking that elk decoys are as motionless as a Beefeater guard, because that will help the OSP bust these wildlife criminals one shaken head at a time.

Troopers now have a new robo-elk decoy that sports a remote-controlled mechanism that makes its head move, giving it a new level of animation in the ongoing fight against the illegal killing of Oregon's biggest land mammals.

"Just that little bit of movement can make the difference with these seasoned poachers," says Lane, who heads the OSP's wildlife enforcement efforts. "I'll be interested to see how effective it becomes."

This latest tool in the anti-poaching arsenal comes courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States, whose Wildlife Land Trust spent the $4,000 necessary to buy and ship the decoy from a Wisconsin firm that specializes in robo-mounts.

The full-bodied Rocky Mountain elk has detachable six-by-six point antlers so it can look like anything from a herd bull to a fat cow.

OSP troopers expect to get another set of smaller antlers for use primarily on the west side.

Like with decoy deer and turkeys, the robotic elk will be used primarily to go after poachers targeting animals out of season, in closed areas or at night.

It's also good enough to pass as a Roosevelt elk, meaning it will help corner poachers on either side of the Cascades — without a real elk having to die to make a case.

That's been the key to the Wildlife Enforcement Decoy Program since it was created in 1991 as a way of proactively working poaching and spotlighting cases. But the fake deer used at that time led primarily to minor charges because the offenders were shooting at something with the legal equivalent of a throw rug.

That changed in 1995, when the Oregon Legislature passed a law that tipped the scales a little toward the OSP when it targets poachers in the woods.

The law gives state police decoys the same legal status as a live animal in the woods. That means everything from casting a spotlight on wildlife to shooting one in any illegal fashion carries the same legal weight as if a real deer or elk was killed by the offending shooter.

Poachers shooting at decoys face possible prosecution for a Class A misdemeanor, punishable upon conviction of up to a year in jail, fines of up to $6,250 and loss of hunting privileges for two years in Oregon and surrounding states.

Poachers also face restitution if the decoy — often called Scruffy because of its bullet-riddled hide and .270-caliber ear piercings — is damaged in the case.

In 2008, the OSP ran 225 WED operations across the state using primarily deer and elk decoys, though troopers' cache also includes antelope and bear decoys.

The decoys are usually stationed off roadways where they can be spotted by drivers actively scanning the hills for animals.

In 2008, troopers reported 1,206 vehicles drove past the decoys, and more than half included people spying the fake animal, OSP statistics show. People in 90 of those vehicles fired at the decoy, leading to 143 citations — mostly violations or misdemeanors but a few felonies for felons in possession of a firearm, statistics show.

The OSP annually publishes the statistics from the WED Program, and an Oregon hunter who saw the stats mentioned to Lane that he should ask for financial help from HSUS — a group most hunting organizations vilify as their main enemy.

So Lane called Robert Koons, who runs the trust out of its Seattle office.

Koons says he was happy to help the OSP curb as much poaching as possible, so the trust was willing to foot the bill for a new decoy of some kind.

A call to Custom Robotics in Wisconsin revealed that a robo-elk was almost done and ready for purchase.

Over the years, the OSP has added a few of Custom Robotics' robo-deer to the program, with moving heads and wiggling tails helping catch the backwoods bad guys.

But those within that ilk have known for years that the decoy elk don't move.

"I thought, this may be the thing we need," Lane says.

The decoy had its maiden mission last weekend along the Santiam River.

Plenty of passersby stopped to look at the robot, its head swinging back and forth as if to say "no" to the potential poachers.

They apparently took robo-elk's heed, Lane says.

"We had no takers that first day," Lane says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Senior Trooper Adam Turnbo with Oregon State Police's Wildlife Enforcement Decoy program operates a robo-elk during a sting last weekend along the Santiam River. - The Register-Guard