Trooper Jim Collom of the Oregon State Police's Fish and Wildlife Division moves Scruffy, a deer decoy to catch poachers, into position. Jim Craven 10/24/2008 - Jim Craven

Done in by the decoy

PROSPECT — Stretched across the hood of his pickup and his face pressed to his binoculars, a man locks his attention on a frozen black-tailed deer in a stare-down that no one will ever win.

As the man studies the buck in a clearing off the Prospect-Butte Falls Highway, his wife remains in the idling pickup with a rifle pointed downward in the bucket seat next to her.

Deer-hunting season won't re-open until the following morning, so they know shooting now would be illegal. Oregon State Police Trooper Jim Collom is crouched in brush nearby, wondering what the couple will do.

Over two minutes pass. The man blinks. The deer's plastic eyes can't.

"They've had every opportunity to stick that rifle out the window and put a scope on it and shoot, but they didn't," Collom says. "Good for them."

This won't be the last transfixion someone will have this day with Scruffy, the decoy deer that continues to dupe poachers and picture-takers every time his stuffed hide and rebar feet are deployed to save real animals from illegal killing.

Collom and his partner, OSP Senior Trooper Mike Cushman, join Scruffy as part of the Wildlife Enforcement Decoy program, which uses this bullet- and arrow-riddled form to nab poachers prepared to shoot off-hours or out of season.

Though targeting wildlife crooks, these stings catch more people acting legally than not, helping reinforce the troopers' notions that not all who travel the woods with weapons are willing to break wildlife laws.

"Right there, that's the outcome we want to see — someone being perfectly law-abiding," Collom says.

The man pulls his binoculars down as Cushman drives up to the pickup and introduces the couple to Scruffy. Cushman then shoos them away to make room for the next car motoring up the highway toward the sting.

It's a green Subaru driven by a woman with a pink ball cap. Not quite the demographic Collom and Cushman are looking for. The Subaru never slows down.

"She never saw him," Collom says.

The sting is simple: stick Scruffy in a small clearing off a roadway where the OSP has received complaints about poaching. One trooper watches from a close vantage point, usually on the other side of the road, as the spotter.

A second trooper waits nearby in a pickup. He or she is the "Take Down" trooper who will chase down and stop any offenders.

They keep tabs by portable radio.

"We try to put it in a place where (poachers) are driving and looking for deer, not out in the open where everyone and their dog can see it," Collom says.

On Friday, the sting is to test elk hunters coming out of the woods who might stop and take a shot at Scruffy to make up for a long and fruitless week. It's mid-day and the Prospect-Butte Falls Highway has a fair amount of traffic, both hunters and non-hunters.

A maroon minivan motors past, its driver clueless.

"Didn't see it," Collom says into the radio.

Many Oregonians have seen Scruffy and others in the OSP's decoy cache since 1991, when the Oregon Legislature granted enforcement decoys the same legal status as wildlife in poaching cases. It has since spread statewide, with deer, elk and bear decoys all at work in the woods.

Any illegal shooting at the decoy, such as from a road or during a closed season, can lead to several charges. The most common, though, is "unlawful take of wildlife: WED decoy," which is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Most cases, however, are settled far more on the cheap.

Common sentences include fines of $250-$800, a $250 restitution to the WED program and a suspension of hunting privileges for one or two years, Collom says.

The restitution includes money to patch and reshape Scruffy, whose name came as troopers struggled to fix bullet and arrow holes to make the decoy look good enough to surprise poachers.

"We've even talked about having confetti pop out of it when people shoot it," Collom says.

Those caught almost always acknowledge their crimes and rarely give troopers any guff, Collom says.

"Most of the guys feel stupid, really embarrassed," Collom says.

Almost no one cries entrapment, Cushman says.

The decoy is of average size and the snap-on antlers are nothing special, so it's not like the troopers are infecting honest citizens with "Buck Fever."

"That bridge has been crossed a long time ago," Cushman says. "It's not like a big enough trophy that they look at it and lose all mental capacity."

The sound of a pickup rumbling up the highway means another passerby's mentality will be tested.

It's a Forest Service pickup. That would be ironic.

The driver doesn't blink.

Along comes a truck towing a camouflage-clad powerboat. A duck hunter. Wrong obsession.

"They got to have their eyes out, really looking for something to shoot," Collom says. "Those guys obviously weren't."

Most people do.

In 2007, OSP troopers ran 227 decoy operations lasting a total of 546 hours, with 1,163 vehicles driving by. Of those, troopers believe that people in 579 of those vehicles saw the deer, and someone from 109 of those vehicles fired a shot, leading to 128 citations, records show.

"Those are cases made without any wildlife having to be shot," says Lt. David Cleary, who oversees the statewide program for the OSP. "That's a good thing."

Sometimes, it's a funny thing.

One night three years ago, Scruffy titillated a man to stop his truck, get out and stare at the form. He hastily returned to his car and pulled out what Collom expected was a gun.

"The next thing you know, there's a click and a flash," Collom says. "I yelled, 'Hey! Get out of here!' I didn't want him to know it was a decoy."

Another time, a bowhunter looked at the decoy and drove away. Twenty minutes later, there's an arrow sticking in Scruffy's side and a confused bowhunter in the nearby brush.

"All you heard was a TWANG!," Collom says. "He didn't break the law, but that was one disappointed hunter."

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