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Taking the bait: Remote-control deer deter poaching
A deer stands in the underbrush several feet from the roadway.
Its tail twitches and its head moves as if to follow a car that is coming up the road. Seemingly unafraid, the deer stares as the car stops.
While the driver sits, a passenger draws out a rifle, aims and fires a shot.
The deer doesn't move.
Assuming that he missed, the passenger fires a couple more shots. Once again, the deer stands motionless.
Then tires squeal as the car speeds away. The driver and passenger realize that a giant stuffed animal has put an end to their cat-and-mouse game. Missouri Department of Conservation officers are likely closing in to issue a ticket.
The stuffed animals, which have evolved into remote-control robots over the last several years, have curtailed white-tail poaching in Southeast Missouri, officials say.
It's is still a problem, though. Just last month, poachers shot a deer near Gordonville. They shot the animal from the road, walked through a field and cut out the deer's back straps, which are the choicest cuts of tenderloin that run along the spine.
They left the rest of the corpse to rot.
Next time, though, the poachers might just fall into the conservation department's deer trap.
The state started using decoy deer during the late 1980s. Throughout the state, the department filed about 250 cases each year into the early 1990s, said protection regional supervisor Ken West. Now, about 50 to 60 cases are filed annually. The Southeast Regional department stations robotic deer throughout 16 counties in Southeast Missouri.
"Things have slowed down simply because we have taken the time to educate people and we've arrested so many people," West said.
Embarrassment is also a deterrent.
"Imagine what it's like for a guy to have to admit that he just shot a stuffed animal," West said.
Since the 1980s, the decoys have evolved from smooth plastic replicas into life-like copies. Their foam and rod frames sport real antlers and deer skin treated by taxidermists. Several have mechanized heads and tails that rotate and twitch when operated by a remote control. The deer come in all sizes and stances, while a few even walk.
Roadside hunting occurs when individuals kill deer from their cars, whether with firearms or archery, whether in season or out of season. They most commonly hunt during the day, West said. Spotlights are commonly used to spot deer during the night. Weapons range from muzzleloaded and black-powder rifles to high-powered rifles with telescopes and infrared lasers.
Hunters are aware that decoys exist, he said. At least two officers are required to man a decoy, and officers frequently witness people climbing out of their cars to shout and throw rocks just to test if it's real.
It is humerous to watch as a real deer runs away, West said.
"A lot of time the deer don't run off because they are used to cars," he said. "They won't run unless you get out of the car."
Though decoys can be amusing, they were first used because of safety concerns.
When a poacher stops on the road, on-coming vehicles could cause accidents.
Since spotlights are used at night, visibility behind the deer is minimal. As a result, homes and barns have been hit.
Drunk hunters often kill various livestock, having mistaken them as deer.
The majority of hunters honor the designated hunting seasons and the number limit, West said. A few opportunists poach for the antlers, for different cuts of meat or just for the thrill of the kill.
"Lazy and greedy are two common characteristics of poachers," West said. Often, their actions destroy otherwise good relationships between hunters and landowners, he said.
Landowners often open their property to hunters, and the hunters may share the meat or return the favor in other ways. A landowner is less likely to welcome hunters back when one of his prize bulls is killed by a drunken poacher, West said.
Overall, "our citizenry is very good at calling the conservation department and reporting poaching," he said.
Poachers face misdemeanor charges with a maximum $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail. In some cases, judges require that they pay to repair the damaged mechanical parts and electrical wires.