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Taxidermist Dustin Clark repairs the nose of a mule deer mount at his shop in Medford recently. Clark was awarded a contract for five full-body Roosevelt elk, a full-body cow and, most likely, two life-sized blacktail deer bulls for a new Cabela's store in Spokane, Wash. - Jamie Lusch

He's back in the game — big time

In good times, car collectors sink extra dollars into classic autos, wine connoisseurs invest in rare vintages and outdoorsmen turn their kill into impressive wall mounts.

When the economy stinks, cars lose their luster, the wine cellar selection narrows and those hunting trophies don't necessarily put them on display.

Medford taxidermist Dustin Clark saw a relatively booming business nearly go bust in recent years as fewer skins found their way to his shop when the economy tanked. All that changed last month, however, when behemoth hunting and fishing outfitter Cabela's awarded Clark a contract for five full-body Roosevelt elk, a full-body cow and, most likely, two life-sized blacktail deer bulls for a new store in Spokane, Wash.

"It came out of the blue because I hadn't talked with them in several weeks before the email came," said the 34-year-old Clark. "There was no bidding wars, or who had the best deal. I was just told to submit invoices; they clearly wanted me."

The deal with Sidney, Neb.-based Cabela's, which bills itself as the "World's Foremost Outfitter," will generate cash flow unlike any he's seen for several years.

Taxidermy is both a leading and lagging economic indicator. When the economy is good, hunters keep taxidermists' shops whirling. After a string of successful years, Clark saw the economic worm turn in 2008.

"It was a whole different world when the economy was exploding," Clark said. "All the laborers were raking in the dough and they are the core of the local hunting community. For a while, it seemed every buck that hit the ground came to a taxidermist. I never gave it much thought until the last couple of years."

But as the real estate market slowed, home building fell off and the recession deepened, hunters no longer had expendable income.

"For three years, there was less and less business," he admitted. "That put me in a big bind and crippled my ability to get the work out I was obligated to do."

As double-digit jobless rates persisted, the trend exacerbated. During the 2011 antelope season, four animals were brought to his shop, he said. "All four of them were from good friends and family. Last year, there were 16 through the door. There are still the same number of tags being dispersed. It's a specialty hunt and you only get one or two in your life."

To compensate for the downturn, Clark took 30 business trips to Elko, Nev., putting in 10-day stretches working for Gary Powell at North Slope Taxidermy.

"I got to work monster hours, putting in 100-plus hours," Clark said. "He'd cut me a check and I would go home."

It will be a while, however, before Clark has to think about another trip to Elko.

"For the first time in many years, Cabela's was searching for another taxidermist," Clark said. "Often in this business, people bite off more than they can chew. Once a contract is breached, they find someone else."

Clark got his foot in the door last year. While he was at a hunting show, he found out about the Springfield store and that Cabela's wanted blacktail and Roosevelt for its displays, rather than mule and whitetail deer usually populating its stores.

"I found a good angle to pitch them," he said.

He was given the task of reconstructing a world-record Roosevelt elk, boasting a 404 score, harvested by Scott Ballard outside of Corvallis, for the Springfield store.

"The antlers had already been pedestal-mounted," Clark said. "Cabela's supplied the skins and I was able to pick the ones suited for the horns."

It typically costs about $6,000 to assemble a full-size elk before additional components are added to the mix.

Clark said he made a point of regularly emailing photos to Cabela's showing his work after the original job was done to keep his name fresh in the outfitter's mind and it paid off.

"I feel truly blessed to be surrounded by really good, high-end, quality-minded taxidermists at every shop I've worked who had a strive-to-be-the-best-in-the-country mentality," the taxidermist said.

Displaying some natural ability and artistic flair, Clark was groomed by his mentors not to be intimidated by big mounts.

He entered the field 17 years ago, learning from local taxidermists Brian Samuels and Dennis King, among others.

"Brian was gracious enough to let me sit in and get my roots started back in 1996," he said.

During his time with Samuels, he put together his first two competition mounts, receiving a high second and a low second for an antelope shoulder mount and a blacktail deer shoulder mount at a show in Bend.

"Just being in that atmosphere was good because everyone was so helpful and encouraging," Clark said. "It showed me everything was possible."

He worked with King six years before getting his own business launched out of his parents' garage in 2002.

"What I've learned has given me confidence to take on big projects," he said.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.

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