THEY SHOOT DECOYS, DON'T THEY?
Just before dawn, with coyotes yipping from the trees across a narrow forest road just south of the Mogollon Rim, Arizona Game and Fish Department law enforcement specialist Ron Day pulls a tom turkey from the back of his truck. It's a mounted gobbler, a bagpipe-size bird that the Game and Fish Department uses as a decoy to catch hunters who shoot from the road, hunt in posted areas, poach game or commit other violations. The bogus bird has a brand-new, freeze-dried head--the original head got blown off in the line of duty--and it has enough loose buckshot in it from earlier decoy operations to qualify as a maraca.
October 9 is the second day of small-game season, "when everything that walks, crawls or flies gets it," as they say in the business: squirrels, rabbits and turkeys, which are the wariest of birds, hard to find, and getting harder. Some state wildlife experts fear they are being poached out of existence.
Day and a wildlife manager named Dave Carrothers set their "Tom" on a remote-controlled lazy Susan platter in a clearing before a stack of deadwood they piled the night before as a backstop.
"I had a college minor in landscape architecture," Carrothers jokes as he piles leaves around the lazy Susan. He's a lanky, woodsy-looking fellow with a red beard and a Game and Fish baseball cap that pushes down on his ears, friendly looking except for the handle of the automatic pistol that sticks out of a tear in his camouflage shirt. Day, on the other hand, is built like a gymnast, with a skullcap of black hair and a standard-issue policeman's mustache.
At first light, the trap set, Day drives his truck far back into the woods away from the road and the two men lurk at roadside waiting for the day's first customer.
Within minutes an old Plymouth Aries creaks down the dirt road. Carrothers jumps behind a giant old juniper tree, Day behind a pine where he can work the remote control. Across the road in the clearing, "Tom" rotates as stiffly as an amusement-park skill game, but when his red head catches the sunlight, the Aries stops with a screech and shower of gravel.
A strawberry-blond youth in Army-surplus camouflage jumps out, stands on the road and draws a bead on the turkey, then thinks a second, steps onto the grass by the roadside and squeezes off a shot louder than the crack of dawn. Feathers explode from Tom's backside, the glass-bead eyes drop out of the head.
Day and Carrothers jump out of the woods. "Arizona Game and Fish," they shout, and the kid instantly yells, "I was off the road, I was off the road!" He's been through this before.
In Arizona, it's illegal to shoot from a vehicle or from a roadway, though it's a common practice, passed down from father to son. The law requires hunters to get out of their trucks and step off the roadbed to lessen the likelihood they'll blow away their buddies or their own extremities in their excitement. A year ago, this young man shot the same decoy in the same clearing--though last year he shot from the roadway and was cited by the same two agents. This time, at least, he thought long enough to step from the road into the grass, but, as luck would have it, he's forgotten his hunting license.
The kid leans sullenly against the trunk of his car as Carrothers writes the ticket. "The last two years I got two decoys," he sulks. "That's pretty lame." He takes the ticket, opens the back door of the car, tosses his shotgun over the front seat, and sits down in the back. His elderly father, who hasn't moved from behind the steering wheel during the entire scene, puts the car in gear and they drive off.
Day and Carrothers step back into the woods to wait for their next turkey.
@body:Many state wildlife management agencies use decoy animals to police hunters in and out of hunting season. They'll set up reflectors that simulate animal eyes to catch night hunters who use spotlights to blind and daze deer and elk. It is illegal to hunt at night. When game officers suspect that poachers are operating in an area, they'll stage a decoy operation to try to catch them in the act.
Past decoy operations have shown staggering rates of noncompliance to Arizona state game laws--often as not, half of the hunters that spot a decoy will break the law when they shoot at it.
Perhaps because the Game and Fish Department's deer decoys have received a lot of publicity, the number of hunters cited for taking deer illegally each year has dropped from 366 in 1988 to 185 in 1992. Still, the numbers of tickets that Arizona Game and Fish writes for hunting violations has not changed appreciably over the last five years. The gross total for all fishing, hunting and boating tickets written annually hovers around 6,000; 500 to 600 are for poaching, and of those offenses, about a third involve game birds.
But statistics can't measure the actual number of infractions over the course of a year. Last year the department issued more than 163,000 hunting licenses, yet there are only 115 full-time wildlife enforcement officers in the entire state policing the state's hunters and fishermen. Dave Carrothers, for example, covers a 1,500-square-mile territory and couldn't hope to catch more than the smallest fraction of offenders. Until recently, a single game warden covered a territory in the northwesternmost corner of Arizona that was bigger than the states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts put together.
Hunting plays an important role in wildlife management, especially since the populations of such predators as bears and wolves have been diminished or eradicated. Hunters are not game thieves or boors by definition. Most probably are not. But the extent of poaching, thievery and firearm stupidity is impossible to assess.
When someone robs a Circle K, it's captured on video. "With people problems and burglary, you've got victims who call in and the police get a nice set of statistics," says game ranger Ray Kohls. "Well, you know the animals can't talk, so we really don't know. We do find carcasses out there," the remains of the animal after the meat and trophies are taken.
The violator may be overzealously trying to fill his deer or elk tags--or hunting with someone else's. Often it's a question of ego, as in those big-game hunters looking to complete their grand-slam collection of wild sheep trophies who are driven to poach desert bighorn sheep. Commercial poachers traffic in exotic pelts of endangered jaguars or even in animal body parts. Bear paw soup is an Oriental delicacy; bear gallbladder and deer antlers are illegally harvested to be shipped to the Orient and made into Oriental folk medicines.
Rural communities have their own subcultures of gleaners looking to tweak the system, whether they're poaching wood or poaching animals. Game and Fish agents regularly watch freelance woodcutters because their firewood loads can conceal poached deer or elk.
"You shoot an elk, you've got a problem," says Rob Young, the Operation Game Thief manager for the Game and Fish Department. "You're going to need some work to conceal it. You've got to whack it up. You're going to need a big vehicle."
Turkeys, on the other hand, are small and convenient. "The perfect poaching animal," says Ron Thompson, a Game and Fish law enforcement specialist in Pinetop. "They don't smell. They don't leave a lot of blood. They fit behind the truck seat. You don't have to sit there and skin them. You just pick em up and put em in the back of your truck and you're gone. There's no sign whatsoever."
Most infractions, however, are just plain boneheaded: the 85-year-old man who shot an Amtrak train while he was aiming at a covey of doves, the yahoo who shoots an owl because it's there and he's got a shotgun.
Just as every third Arizona male thinks he's a cowboy, so he thinks he's a hunter. To wit: On October 7, Arizona Republic columnist William P. Cheshire invoked Thoreau in a folksy column that detailed his first sighting of the bushy-eared Aberts' squirrel, "two of which I brought down with a .22 and took to Bob's wife for Brunswick stew," he wrote in the style of Teddy Roosevelt. In a follow-up column, Cheshire sheepishly admitted he'd been cited by the Game and Fish Department. Squirrel season didn't open until October 8.
@body:The Arizona Game and Fish Department started its decoy operations in 1987 out of its Flagstaff office. A game ranger named Dave Bancroft invested $200 on a full mount of a deer, placed a small, four-point rack of antlers on its head. If they had placed a larger rack on the decoy, it might have been too inviting when they set it by the side of the road.
Nineteen cars drove past over the next ten hours, and ten of them stopped. Of those ten, three studied the beast through gun scopes and decided it was too small, and the other seven fired on it. Only one of those hunters did so legally; the others shot from the road, from their vehicles or from the seats of their four-wheeler ATVs.
Subsequent deer and elk decoy operations later that same season turned up the same troubling rates of noncompliance. And since the citations the department wrote earned a 98 percent conviction rate, decoys became a regular institution.
So did the noncompliance rates. Ron Thompson ran a turkey decoy operation out of AGF's Pinetop-Lakeside regional office last fall. Of 24 drivers who stopped to look at the decoy, 12 shot at it illegally. Others took photographs or honked their horns to try to scare it off. One watched the bogus bird for several minutes, then drove a few yards down the road and shot a squirrel out of a tree through his car window. When AGF agents stopped him and cited him, the hunter just asked, "Did you see the turkey down the road?"
"It's somewhat disturbing to see the violation rates for turkeys," Thompson notes. "We have a declining turkey population in Arizona, and we're doing hundreds of thousands of dollars' research to find out why, when the reality may be a poaching problem."
However, several state game rangers complain that it's impossible to do a definitive compliance study for turkeys because there's no way to make a turkey decoy last long enough to collect any definitive numbers. After three or four direct hits, there's not much left.
Each regional office of Arizona Game and Fish has a menagerie of decoys: javelina and turkey, deer and elk. Some of them are no more than green or untanned hides stretched over a wooden frame--plywood venison. "We just wet em down real good and stretch em over the form," says Ray Kohls, a game ranger in the Game and Fish office in Mesa. "They stink real good until they dry." Rob Young recalls one such decoy, a deer skin stapled over a plywood form. A bow hunter placed an arrow right on the seam on its chest, popped the staples and watched the skin peel off his quarry right before his eyes.
"Buster," a deer decoy kept in the department's Phoenix office, has a rod through his chest connected to a remote-control motor that turns his head. The head turns smoothly enough to one side so that the deer appears to be following the movement of oncoming cars, but when the direction is reversed on the remote control, the head snaps back as violently as in a Warner Bros. cartoon. Utah game wardens have a deer decoy that lies down in the woods and then stands up when hunters pass. Buster's so beat up, it's a wonder he stands at all. He still draws fire.
The Flagstaff region has a turkey decoy mounted on a little train track like a V-1 rocket so that the bird appears to be running into the bushes. The Pinetop-Lakeside regional office has a turkey with a moving--but not foolproof--head. Once while two hunters lined up illegal shots from the road, the head fell off. One of the hunters noticed, called it to his buddy's attention, and though they weren't sure exactly what was going on, they lowered their weapons.
Of course, any experienced hunter knows that turkeys don't stand still and they recognize the deception. Primitive decoys like the ones used by Day and Carrothers attract those inexperienced hunters who have been staring at stumps all day long and are ready to take a shot at anything. The bird on a lazy Susan serves those boys up on a platter.
@body:Officer Buster, the deer decoy, does annual service at the Arizona State Fair in Phoenix, propped up in the Game and Fish building beneath a sign that says he's been shot more than 140 times in the line of duty.
He looks more than a little shabby in the context of a display devoted to Arizona wildlife. After viewing the perfect specimens, full body mounts of bear and owls and porcupines and mountain lions, suddenly, here's a raggedy, moth-eaten mule deer, his head turned unnaturally, the ears frayed, the antlers askew, half of the holes in his side plugged with orange plastic filler. But he draws questions as surely as he draws fire.
Three 10-year-old boys in baseball caps and shorts descend upon the deer. "Is it real?" one of them asks.
"No, boy, it's dead. What's the matter with you?" barks Rob Young, who is standing nearby at a diorama illustrating the horrors of commercial poaching--photos of bear paws and bear galls, piles of pelts.
A woman walks by followed by a toddler. The mother points to Buster, looks at the child and shouts, "Bad men kill animals. Bad! Bad!" The child stares blankly, wondering just who is being scolded. A man in a green cap herds his prepubescent sons toward the deer. "There's that decoy," he tells the boys. "I saw it up near Williams." He claims it didn't fool him, but then he only saw it because Game and Fish rangers were writing out a ticket for someone else when he came by.
"You're gonna see it up in Williams again next week," Young says.
Behind Young on a video monitor is a surveillance film shot during a couple of decoy operations in the Kaibab National Forest. It's a "Best of Buster" kind of film, hunters shooting from the road, then doing double takes and shouting "What the hell?" when the deer doesn't drop. What the moving pictures say about hunters in general is not flattering: frame after frame of slowing pickup trucks with hunters slipping out of doors and using the vehicle as cover, then popping off a round over the truck bed; a man shooting from the front seat of an open Jeep--when the camera comes in for a close-up, his baseball cap clearly says, "You have obviously mistaken me for someone who gives a shit!"
Since there are so few game wardens roaming the woods, Game and Fish likes to publicize its decoy operations with the hope that it will discourage illegal hunting out of the hunters' fear they'll get caught in such a sting operation. Most of the fines range from $75 to $150 per offense; the humiliation is far greater.
The State Fair display and the video fall into that educational category. However, Game and Fish personnel have nicknamed the video "Moon Over Kaibab" for its most memorable scene: A heavyset man gets out of a pickup truck with a bow and arrow. With his back to the camera, it's painfully clear that there's a full eight inches of plunging rear cleavage between the top of his pants and the bottom of his shirt. He slips off arrow after arrow at the motionless deer, as if hypnotized even when the game rangers jump into the frame and grab his bow. When he bends over to take his license off the seat of his truck, he reveals a blinding full moon's expanse of skin--without ever seeming to come out of his trance.
Such tunnel vision is typical. Hunters don't seem to notice that the javelina is frozen in an incongruous attack pose away from the herd. Turkeys also travel in flocks and are very difficult to get close to; yet the hunters don't seem to notice that the lone bird isn't hustling off into the bushes. They've been stalking all day, probably not seeing anything, then nearly wet themselves with the adrenaline rush, scrambling to get their safeties off, fumbling with the cartridges. One cracks off an illegal shot and gets cited; the others claim they knew it was a decoy all along, when the only reason they didn't shoot was because they couldn't get their guns ready.
On occasion the tunnel vision lapses into out-of-body experience. Ron Thompson was on a turkey decoy operation near Pinetop. A pickup truck cruised past slowly, a door flew open and disgorged a hunter with a loaded rifle. He rolled two or three times, Starsky and Hutch style, then shot from the hip. He missed the turkey, of course, and when the game rangers questioned him, he turned out to be a local fire-safety instructor, someone who is supposed to teach safe handling of firearms for neophyte hunters. Worse still, he'd been on a decoy stakeout with the very same game rangers who cited him. "We asked him if he taught that in his classes, the jump-and-roll technique," Thompson says with more than a hint of sarcasm.
The rangers on stakeout can usually hear every word the hunters say, see everything they do, and it's not always amusing. They've watched passengers shoot across the driver out the driver's-side window of the car, drivers shoot across the laps of their children--the children plug their ears before the gun goes off because they've been through the routine before, or even hold the barrel of the rifle to steady it.
"We're lucky there aren't more accidents," says Rob Young. He recalls a hunter who pumped two clips from a vintage M-1 rifle into a decoy deer. The game rangers had to grab the hot barrel of the gun before he stopped. He was cited for shooting a doe during buck season, at night, through the window of his car, using his brother's deer tag. To add insult to injury, he turned out to be a law enforcement officer.
@body:There are no such dramatics on Ron Day and Dave Carrothers' stakeout, however. They pour coffee and lament the lack of doughnut shops on the Mogollon Rim. "No self-respecting city cop would be caught dead with a Dolly Madison doughnut," Day jokes.
Four quick gunshots shatter the forest silence. And since none of the hunters they've contacted so far has seen any real turkeys, Day assumes that someone shot into the air out of boredom. Carrothers mentions that he'd like to find an owl decoy to go after hunters who shoot raptors--which are protected species--just for fun.
Three or four trucks whiz past, two hunters on four-wheeler ATVs, and they either don't notice the decoy or they know what it is and don't care to stop and have their credentials checked. Day had been working the remote control on the decoy so furiously, he says, "I had it break-dancing." The urge to snare evildoers is so great that rangers joke that they'd like to shout, "Right there, it's right there!" Day has to stop and remind himself how admirable it is that no one is breaking the law today--which is less fun than catching people in the act.
Hunters who see the decoy and those who shoot at it wonder if such tactics verge on entrapment. Game and Fish personnel allege that the hunters shoot of their own volition, and to date, the judges have agreed with them.
A yellow pickup truck slows down, then backs up. A man gets out and steps into the clearing. Day and Carrothers come out of hiding to ask him not to shoot--he's clearly going to take a legal shot at this point--and they in turn are followed by a tousle-headed 10-year-old boy who scurries out of the truck after them.
"Shhh, there's a turkey there," the boy whispers so they won't spoil his dad's shot. "Kapow," the father's shotgun goes off and a pillow fight's worth of feathers blows off the decoy's rear end. Day and Carrothers check the dad's license and weapon and everything seems to be in order.
Another truck slows down and stops, but the driver is scanning the side away from the decoy, looking for the game rangers.
"Walked in behind you and you didn't even notice," the driver gloats, then opens his copy of Turkey and Turkey Hunting magazine and tears out an article on turkey decoys. Day politely tries to turn it down, but the man forces it on him. Another pickup slows for the decoy and discharges two men and a woman, all of them in hunter's camouflage and carrying shotguns. They fan off the road; one stalks behind the decoy, walks to within ten feet and aims.
"Don't shoot, it's a fake," Carrothers shouts. Surely a point-blank volley would turn Tom into snowflakes. The hunter lowers his gun. As the agents check licenses and weapons, a 4-year-old boy hops out of the truck carrying an air rifle. He stalks the motionless bird just like his father did, raises his pop gun and fires.
Once again, everything is in order, and Day and Carrothers heartily thank the hunters for following the rules. There's a forced politeness to the exchange, on all parts, perhaps in deference to the fact that everyone is carrying guns. They shake hands all around and bid friendly farewells, and the hunters get back in their truck and drive off.
Not 20 yards down the road, they flag down an oncoming truck, roll down the windows and within view and earshot of the officers, blatantly warn the next batch of hunters that they're driving into a decoy snare. Word will spread quickly through the woods--if it hasn't already.
Old Tom probably can't take another shot without disintegrating, anyway. The jig is up, so the two game rangers load the bird back into the truck and call it a day.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.