KETCHUM, Idaho (AP) - Shortly after sunrise, a cow elk and her calf pause in a small clearing, looking toward the pair of hunters walking up Warm Springs Road. One man kneels on the edge of the road, aims his rifle and drops the cow with a single, perfectly placed shot.
She falls on one side with a thud, revealing that her other is nothing but plywood. Her head pops off, tumbling a few rolls down the slope.
And Alex Head, carrying a gun belt and handcuffs under his camo, steps out of the bushes.
Shooting from a public road will earn this hunter a citation.
It's exactly the act for which this elaborate stage was set on the morning of Nov. 5: Two artificially simulated animals placed about 150 yards from Warm Springs Road west of Ketchum, in hunting Unit 48. Three Idaho Department of Fish and Game officers in full camouflage - one with a video camera - hidden in blinds on the opposite slope. And two uniformed officers in the take-down truck, waiting nearby up Barr Gulch Road.
This time, the cast had an extra: One camo-clad reporter with a notebook, an iPhone and a five-hour supply of snacks.
As Head drove the undercover team's unmarked green Ford up the Warm Springs drainage in 7 a.m. darkness, regional conservation officer Josh Royse explained Fish and Game's policy on artificially simulated animals, which most people call decoys.
"Nobody likes to feel tricked, so we're very judicious on how we use these tools," said Royse, who supervises Fish and Game's other south-central Idaho officers.
That means the agency sets up its game decoys only in areas where it has received complaints about illegal or unethical behavior such as trespassing, spotlighting, shooting from a motorized vehicle or wasting game.
"We don't just put these up based on a hunch," Royse said. "We're not fishing for violations."
Head, the senior conservation officer whose patrol territory includes the Warm Springs drainage, took complaints about people shooting from the road here - a danger to public safety. Also, Warm Springs Road is the boundary between two antlerless elk hunts that were open Nov. 5, and a hunter with a tag for one controlled hunt might be tempted to shoot on the other side of the road.
To eliminate excuse for confusion, Head and senior conservation officer Lee Garwood the day before had put up bright-yellow unit boundary signs on Warm Springs Road, within sight of where drivers who spot the decoy elk might stop. They also prepped the site - dragging dead branches to build the officers' blinds and hiding the decoys under a tarp in the weeds.
"We spend a lot of time and effort selecting the specific spot we put these," Royse said as the green Ford bumped over ruts and potholes.
The decoy placement needs to be visible but believable, and it must ensure that anyone who can see the decoys won't shoot toward something unsafe - like a trail or a campground.
Or me, I thought.
Where Garwood waited in the darkness on Warm Springs Road, the three officers in camo piled out of the green Ford: Royse, Head and senior conservation officer Brandyn Hurd. Head pointed with his flashlight toward a pile of branches high on the slope to the north.
That's where I'd spend the next five hours, surveying the road below, a picturesque stretch of Warm Springs Creek, a beaver pond, the snow-dusted slopes to the south and - in a clearing among the trees beyond the creek - the cow elk and her calf.
"Give me a radio check at 7:40," Garwood told Head, driving the green Ford away.
Garwood and senior conservation officer Clark Shackelford, both in uniform, would wait in the marked Fish and Game truck already out of sight up Barr Gulch Road. After fastening the decoys to pieces of rebar pounded into the ground, Head and Royse would watch from a blind close to Warm Springs Road. Hurd and a video camera would document the action from the blind high above, where Head had dug a bench in the dirt behind the dead branches.
A faint glow suggested where sunrise would be, but the stars were still out. Switching off my flashlight to let my eyes adjust, I struggled up the steep scree behind Hurd.
At 8:31 a.m., Hurd interrupted his praise of the L.L.Bean product guarantee - the retailer replaces his boots every time the stitching wears out - to radio to his fellow officers that he could hear a vehicle approaching.
He crouched at the front of the blind to track the vehicle with his video camera and narrated into the radio: "They drove past. They did not see the elk."
"That's a good-looking set," Royse said when he climbed up to our blind a few minutes later.
"Yeah, it is," Hurd said. "And they just drove right by it."
Telling Royse about a harvested mountain goat he checked recently, Hurd interrupted himself again: "Did that sound like a brake to you?"
At another distant squeak, both men hunkered down. "Come on. Come on," Royse murmured.
It was the same truck - this time eastbound, heading down the drainage. And still it didn't stop.
"I have a feeling we might see that truck again," Hurd said.
Instead it turned up Barr Gulch Road, where Garwood and Shackelford would need to do something to explain the presence of a Fish and Game rig.
I thought I heard a touch of glee in Garwood's radio transmission. He'd go check out that suspicious green Ford.
It turned out the hunting party wasn't oblivious after all.
"You've got a guy walking up the road, with a rifle," Royse whispered. "They saw those elk. Brandyn, you got him? Eleven o'clock."
Hurd had his camera on the pair of hunters as one knelt and raised his rifle.
"There. Game on! He's on the road," Royse whispered.
The hunter's single, perfect shot cued the rest of the script: Head emerged from the bushes, Royse hurried down the scree and, moments later, Garwood and Shackelford pulled up with their citation book and copies of codes and regulations.
The hunter held the correct tag for antlerless elk south of Warm Springs Road, so he was cited only for shooting from the road - a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of $1,000 and six months in jail, plus a $50 payment to the state's fund for artificially simulated animal replacement.
"His boots were laying on top of tire tracks," Royse said later.
Royse's Magic Valley officers run about six decoy operations a year, issuing citations during about half of them. Of the four so far this fall, Nov. 5 was the first to result in a citation.
The shot bent a piece of rebar and damaged a bracket, but Head had a pocket full of screws. He pulled on rubber boots and crossed the creek to reset the cow elk decoy. I watched through binoculars as he restored its head and gave the neckline a few quick pats before hurrying away.
Unable to reach his blind before another vehicle approached, Head found a makeshift spot to hide.
"They just hit the brakes. Lee, we may have another shooter," Hurd radioed. "They've stopped, shut the truck off. They're out of the vehicle."
The passenger crouched in the grass down the road's embankment, and the driver raised a rifle behind him, both looking through scopes at the elk. Royse prepared to jump out hollering if it appeared the driver really would fire over the head of his passenger. But both got back in their truck.
"They're driving away," Hurd told the team. "I think they knew it was a decoy."
The officers don't expect their artificially simulated animals to fool everyone, and on this morning they didn't even use the remote-controlled head movement. But the ruse should be sufficient for a hunter who's in enough of a feverish hurry to bend the rules. Royse likes to tell about a hunter who once pulled up behind a marked Fish and Game truck - its blue light flashing while officers dealt with a previous decoy shooter's violation - and shot the decoy anyway.
This morning, a few more vehicles braked but drove on. And another hunter knelt and aimed but dropped his rifle.
"That guy piled out of there like he was on fire," Royse said. But maybe he had a spike elk tag instead of a cow tag. Maybe he heard an officer's radio. Or maybe the decoys didn't look real enough.
Royse asked Hurd to check the elk with his binoculars again.
"From my angle, I think I can see a piece of rebar," Hurd reported. Sure enough: Reset after the shot, the cow elk now had a third front leg. "I wonder if they've been seeing that rebar."
Another trip across the creek for Head fixed the scene.
Though no more bullet holes appeared in the decoys' plywood that morning, a woman with a camera captured what must be some lovely shots of a cow elk and her calf.
And up in the blind on the scree, Royse had time for more reminiscence. When he was a new conservation officer in Buhl, he got a call from a hunter out watching a deer, convinced it was a Fish and Game decoy. I'm onto you, the hunter told Royse.
Royse, wearing sweat pants and watching football on his couch, seized the moment. OK, just don't tell anyone, he said to the hunter.
"Game wardens can't be everywhere," Royse said at the end of his tale. "But we sure want people to think we are."
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