Out in the forest, Oregon State Police Sgt. David Pond looks for signs of poachers: birds circling, tire tracks that swerve back and forth in the dirt or seem to stop suddenly, as if someone spotted something he wanted.
CAMP SHERMAN — Out in the forest, Oregon State Police Sgt. David Pond looks for signs of poachers: birds circling, tire tracks that swerve back and forth in the dirt or seem to stop suddenly, as if someone spotted something he wanted.
Along with typical police tools — a gun, a notebook, a flashlight — he carries a thermometer, a meat saw and a metal detector.
On routine patrols through the area's most popular hunting spots, he has to be ready for a wide range of situations, from poachers using illegal spotlights and wearing night-vision goggles to track their prey to convicted felons hunting with weapons they are not allowed to carry.
In Central Oregon, a hunting and fishing destination for locals and out-of-towners, it's the kind of job that doesn't come with many quiet days. Pond and his team of eight fish and wildlife troopers in Bend, Madras and Prineville often make cases that end with a poacher in prison. On quieter days, they stop to chat with hunters and campers, check for legal hunting tags and make sure everyone is following the rules.
Last week, the team was recognized by the Oregon State Police as the best in the state, and one team member, Senior Trooper James Hayes, received two individual awards for his work. Pond said he's pleased to see his troopers get some recognition — particularly for some of the complex cases they've been able to solve.
"For what would be a career case for some other troops, they make every year," he said.
Among the efforts recognized by state officials were Senior Trooper Chuck Lindberg's enforcement work on a popular 100-mile stretch of the lower Deschutes River and Senior Trooper Andrew Menlow's work as a pilot who often spots poachers or helps with search and rescue missions from the sky.
Other members of the team are Senior Troopers Greg Love, Amos Madison, Mark Prodzinski and Rich Young, and Trooper Travis Ring.
Hayes, who has worked for the Oregon State Police since 1999, received an individual award from OSP and also a second award this week from the Shikar Safari Club, an international hunting group that recognizes wildlife officers from across the country each year.
He was cited for his work on several recent cases, including one that ended with four people being charged with a slew of wildlife crimes in Oregon and Idaho. The suspects in that case videotaped themselves while poaching, and kept and mounted their bounty: bear, deer, cougar and moose.
In another case, Hayes was called to investigate two suspects loading deer meat into their vehicle.
The suspects claimed that the deer had been hit by a car, but Hayes used meat thermometers to figure out that the two bucks had been killed in different places at different times, and the suspects were charged with several fish and wildlife offenses.
He's found sex offenders violating their parole, felons driving around in trucks full of guns and people who just don't feel like they have to get the proper tags or hunt animals in season.
"They go out there and think, No one is going to catch me in the woods,'" he said.
Many of the big cases, Hayes said, begin with a traffic stop, perhaps someone with a taillight out or swerving on the road.
Once they start chatting about hunting, some people forget who they're talking to and start bragging about an elk or a deer they just killed. One man's story about a cow elk he'd shot with a bow and arrow without the required elk tag led Hayes to more evidence and more suspects who had also committed wildlife crimes.
The troopers often use DNA evidence to piece together wildlife crimes. Pond recalled one case related to sage grouse in which troopers found and tested garbage in a small bag the suspects had tossed out at a campsite. In another case, a suspect threw out a bag of illegally taken deer parts along with an envelope, which was later identified with the help of the U.S. Postal Service.
Other local law enforcement and wildlife agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, work closely with the Oregon State Police to track down wildlife offenders.
"We've got a lot of people, a diverse mixture of types of activities and a tremendous amount of user groups who not only live here but come here to recreate, said ODFW district wildlife biologist Steve George. "That's why it's important to connect."
Deschutes County District Attorney Mike Dugan said his office takes poaching and other wildlife crimes very seriously, and he frequently prosecutes the cases himself.
He said the fish and wildlife troopers are known as some of the most knowledgeable and experienced law enforcement officers in the area when it comes to wildlife crime and out-of-the-way hunting and fishing destinations.
"We get a lot of poaching, a lot of people illegally killing deer, some elk, illegally fishing and illegally taking protected animals, and those are all misdemeanors," he said. "If they are consistent, if the bad guys are intentionally stealing the animals from the state ... and people who live here, we frequently charge them with theft, and I think that's important."
Driving up a bumpy road in Camp Sherman, following up on a hunter's report of gunshots a big problem when it's bowhunting season Pond said many of the people he and other troopers run into just get greedy.
"People need to realize that having a set of antlers or a punch on your tag is not a successful hunt," he said. "It's about getting out there and enjoying it — it's not all about the take."