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Radioactive salt licks latest ploy to foil hunters

The bright-yellow leaflets tacked onto trailheads and stuffed under windshield wipers in a backwoods area near Sisters state they weren't the only thing aglow in the woods of Central Oregon.

The fliers, printed on Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife letterhead, warned that radioactive salt licks had been placed in nearby woods for deer and elk so they could be tracked by satellite.

So, the flier advised, if you see any animals acting unnaturally, report them to agency biologists. Oh, and make sure to stay at least 30 feet away from the Geiger-counter crackling salt. And don't eat the flesh of any animals in the area.

"Ahh, the whacky radioactive waste," says Ron Anglin, ODFW's Wildlife Division administrator. "That must be why the deer glow in the dark."

Radioactive deer tracked from space is, of course, a hoax perpetrated by someone who is the latest in a long line of conspiracy theorists to mess with the heads of Oregon's backwoods visitors at agency biologists' expense.

And for the slow learners who still think it might be true, the flier says they can get the skinny on the project by telephoning an 800 number that offers more skin than they might expect.

"It's porn," says Rick Hargrave, who heads ODFW's information and education program. "At least that's the observation I got in the first two seconds after calling it."

Either in fun or out of frustration, certain Oregonians for decades have been blathering about nefarious activities by ODFW employees supposedly hell-bent on ensuring people don't kill and eat the animals they manage.

Whether it's dropping sacks of flour from black helicopters to break up elk herds on the eve of the fall season or sawing the antlers off big bulls to keep them out of hunters cross-hairs, making up stories about ODFW activities is a common participatory sport here.

These skewed versions of reality often have common themes.

Usually they involve elk or antelope, which happen to be two of the toughest species for hunters to stalk. Often they come to be believed as fact after years of unsuccessful hunting, and it's the only explanation that makes it someone else's fault for all those unfilled tags.

The conspiracies often come to light when ODFW employees head to other parts of Oregon on hunting trips where they aren't so recognizable.

Anglin recalls a day in the1980s while elk hunting in the Cascades when a pickup drove slowly next to him as he trudged through heavy snow.

The guy rolled down his pickup window to tell Anglin that ODFW biologists in Oregon National Guard helicopters had been flying around the past few days firing off some kind of bomb that explodes 50 feet over the treetops, scattering the elk below.

He asked Anglin whether he had seen them. After a short no, the guy drove away.

"He never did know who I worked for," Anglin says. "And he didn't offer me a ride, either."

The rumors also include predators. Biologists hauling cougars and, more recently, wolves in the cover of night to get their populations expanded on the sly.

Ironically, these are the same biologists whom animal-rights activists believe are in the hunters' back pockets and disgruntled hunting factions insist are too knuckleheaded to count deer in the field properly.

Occasionally, they reach into the fish world. But here they swirl around chinook salmon — the prize of Oregon's sport fisheries and often one heck of a tough critter to catch.

In the late 1980s, some upper Rogue River anglers were convinced Cole Rivers Hatchery workers manipulated water releases from Lost Creek Dam to draw more fish away from anglers and into the hatchery for sale, pocketing the cash from their actions.

"They used to say that was how we bought new trucks — from those sales," says David Pease, the hatchery's assistant manager, who worked as a technician there in the '80s.

True, ODFW did — and still does — make some money on chinook sales. But it doesn't go to any of the workers. It doesn't even get spent at Cole Rivers, just put into a statewide "carcass fund" for hatchery expenses.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers actually controls the water releases, and the Corps rarely juggles them during the chinook runs.

The most likely reason chinook enter the hatchery so readily — and escape the gauntlet of frustrated anglers — is because the approach into the trap is one of the smoothest and most easily accessible in the state.

"As a grunt, I didn't want more fish in the hatchery anyway," Pease says. "That was just more work for me."

The case of the yellow flier is, actually, a case now. Misusing public letterhead like that is a crime, and Oregon State Police has opened an investigation. A trooper might even dial the 800 number, in the name of justice.

"But I have no clue where it will end up," Anglin says. "It's all pretty bizarre."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.