Steve Nicovich with camo and a blaze orange hat. - Jim Craven

Don't Move

LAKE CREEK — Decked in camouflage patterned perfectly against the oaky backdrop of the hills behind him, Steve Nicovich can blend into the environment so easily that black-tailed deer standing a mere 10 feet away can become fatally fooled.

To a deer, the broken patterns of the shirt and pants look like real twigs and leaves. The animals also take bare notice of the patch of blaze orange on Nicovich's cap, though it blares like a road flare to any nearby hunters.

The befuddled deer can't see him, even if they sense his presence.

"You end up getting into a staring contest," says Nicovich, of Eagle Point. "They're looking for movement. They don't seem to care that there's some orange in there."

The topic of what animals can see in the woods — and whether wearing blaze orange puts hunters at a disadvantage — has been dissected and gnashed by both hunters and scientists over the years.

What science is telling hunters is that properly washed and mottled camouflage clothing that contains a broken pattern of hunter orange blended into it can be less spooky to deer and elk than large, unbroken patterns of green and other earth tones.

Studies show that, while deer possess the physical ability to recognize the same colors of the spectrum that humans do, they don't necessarily see reds and oranges that are low on the light spectrum as well as they see the greens and blues with higher wavelengths.

While they might see the orange, it doesn't necessarily raise red flags for them.

"Physically, we know they're capable of detecting it," says Dwain Jackson, the research program supervisor for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Southwest Region. "What we don't know is whether that color association means anything to them behaviorally in the woods.

"To know that, you have to be a deer," Jackson says.

Trying to outwit deer, elk, goose, or grouse is at the forefront for tens of thousands of Oregonians who each fall and winter pull on their hunting caps and head to their woods and waters of choice.

Throughout much of the country, hunters are required to wear blaze orange, also called hunter orange, while in the field. The requirements are steeped largely in estimates of safety.

The International Hunter Education Association has estimated that 90 percent of firearms-related hunting accidents would have been avoided if blaze orange had been worn, allowing hunters to better see each other.

But backwoods wardrobe remains a personal choice in Oregon.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has no formal policy or position regarding whether Oregonians should be required to wear blaze orange while hunting. The Oregon Legislature has resisted requests for such laws in the past, in part because some hunters believe the extra visibility harms their hunting success.

"We really play it up as a volunteer thing to do," says Ron Anglin, the ODFW's Wildlife Division administrator. "But there just hasn't been much interest in the community on all levels — the hunting community, the (Oregon Fish and Wildlife) Commission and the Legislature — to require blaze orange."

But can hunted quarry actually see what appears to be a neon sign to people, and does it matter in the field?

Waterfowl and upland game birds can clearly distinguish color, researchers say. That's likely the role that ornate plumage plays for males seeking mating females.

But deer and elk see differently, and the first clues are in the eyes themselves.

Eyes contain a series of rods, which operate in low-light conditions, and cones, which denote color.

Human eyes contain plenty of cones to differentiate color, but correspondingly fewer rods. For people, that puts the dark in darkness.

Research on white-tailed deer shows they have more rods than humans and fewer cones. This allows them to see colors, but they detect colors higher on the spectrum (like blues and greens) better than those low on the spectrum (like red and orange).

The most common explanation is that deer likely see the same as someone with red-green color blindness.

According to an article published in a 2003 Wildlife Society bulletin, studies show that deer see orange, but it's the brightness of the orange that will largely determine whether a deer can spot it.

"If it's a real muted orange, it probably doesn't necessarily mean something to them," says the ODFW's Jackson.

Perhaps deer can learn to associate blaze orange with people hunting them, much like people do. But it's unclear whether their brains process color information that way.

To deer, blaze orange likely doesn't act like a neon sign saying "Hunter Here."

"It's like you were to see someone wearing hunter orange at an opera, would you think they were hunting?" Jackson says. "Obviously, they're at an opera.

"I don't believe deer can rationally think that process through," Jackson says. "I think what they're reacting to is movement associated with humans."

It's largely this belief that has Oregonians slowly embracing — but ever so slightly — the introduction of blaze orange to their hunting attire.

About the most orange you'll see on an Oregon hunter is a baseball-style cap that bears a camouflage pattern pocked with bright orange.

"It's one of our most popular hats," says Duane Dungannon, secretary of the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association, the state's largest hunting group. "It's not a lot of orange, and it's broken up. But it's still enough that someone can see you from, literally, a mile away."

Yet the same people who wouldn't be caught in blaze orange will wear traditional red wool coats in the field.

"I honestly believe it's more of a fashion statement," Dungannon says. "I have a buddy who wants to dress like Teddy Roosevelt and others who want to look like commandos. It's very much about style more than science."

What ultimately appears more important than what deer or elk see in the woods is what they perceive.

As a case in point, Nicovich recalls elk hunting near Lemolo Lake one day decked out camo that included blaze orange. Sitting on a log to rest, Nicovich noticed a cow elk wander into view.

The animal looked right through Nicovich.

"If I had on a solid wall of color, any color, she probably would have seen me," Nicovich says.

Ultimately she didn't, and the elk wandered off unaware she had just been part of a little ground-truthing of clinical studies.

"The reason is, I didn't move and the wind was in my face," Nicovich says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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