Daylight broke Saturday morning over the snow-dusted Blue Mountains near Ukiah, where the distant echo of rifle blasts signaled the start of elk season across Eastern Oregon.
Dain Gardner, senior trooper with the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division, began his day at 5 a.m., noting the perfect hunting conditions that included below-freezing temperatures and just enough white on the ground to easily spy a well-trodden game trail or herd of elk.
“This is my office,” Gardner said behind the wheel of his patrol truck. “If you can’t enjoy the job working out here, there’s something wrong with you.”
Saturday marked the first day of the second season for rifle elk hunting in Oregon, which runs through Sunday, Nov. 12. The first rifle season was Oct. 25-29, while archery season for deer and elk went from Aug. 26 through Sept. 24.
Elk season is a busy time for Gardner, and can send him anywhere around the Pendleton area all the way down to John Day, depending on the case. He spent Saturday in the Ukiah Wildlife Management Area, where hunting was open to spike bulls only — bulls with unbranched antlers.
No sooner than Gardner arrived at the Bridge Creek Wildlife Area south of town did he encounter his first dispute of the day, as two hunters each claimed they had shot the same elk. Cameron Sponseller, with the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, was already on scene to assist with corroborating both men’s stories.
“This happens regularly out here,” Gardner said, joking that he ought to swap his uniform for a referee shirt. “We’ll get it figured out.”
After examining the carcass, Gardner and Sponseller determined that only one bullet actually hit the elk, making it a relatively open-and-shut case. But by simply taking the extra time and talking to hunters, Gardner said it helps to keep level heads and even tempers.
“We’re just out here trying to keep things fair,” he said.
‘I always wanted to do this job’
Gardner, who lives in Hermiston and graduated from Umatilla High School in 1990, has 22 years of experience in law enforcement, including three years with the Hermiston Police Department. He joined the OSP Fish and Wildlife Division in 2003 and never looked back.
“I always wanted to do this job,” Gardner said. “As far as police work goes, this is where it’s at.”
Growing up, Gardner spent plenty of time in the woods hunting and fishing and has developed a remarkable eye for spotting faint, faraway wildlife. Even a single prowling coyote cannot escape his radar-like vision.
Gardner’s supervisor, Sgt. Tim Brown, said that kind of local knowledge of hunting and fishing makes him a tremendous asset to the team.
“He’s passionate about the work he does, and it shows as far as his tenacity,” Brown said.
The dirt road through Bridge Creek Wildlife Area becomes increasingly rough as Gardner drives down into a draw, fog rolling off the surrounding hillsides. The radio is so far quiet, which is a good sign though Gardner knows how quickly that can change.
“We’ve had years where we’re salvaging double-digit numbers of elk in a weekend,” he said.
According to OSP figures, 394 deer and 255 elk were illegally harvested statewide in 2016. That compares to 492 deer and 231 elk in 2015, and 504 deer and 222 elk in 2014.
Poaching will always be an issue wherever there is wildlife, Gardner said, though he is quick to point out the difference between poachers and ethical hunters who sometimes make mistakes. If a hunter mistakenly takes an animal out of season, he said they should report the incident so at least the meat can be salvaged.
“If they call in, we’ll do everything we can for them,” Gardner said. “If they don’t and leave it to waste, we’ll do everything we can to catch them.”
OSP Fish and Wildlife is the state’s main line of defense to uphold hunting and fishing laws. Troopers like Gardner are out on patrol year-round across the state, checking tags, gathering tips and generally making their presence known.
“Really, you just hope you’re visible so somebody will think twice before they make that bad shot or bad decision,” he said.
‘Somebody rushed a shot’
By mid-afternoon, the radio crackles to life as Gardner is alerted to a mortally wounded branch bull elk not far from Mushroom Camp in the Umatilla National Forest.
It takes some time navigating the uneven Forest Service roads, but Gardner eventually meets with Sponseller, fellow OSP Trooper Ryan Sharp and Deputy Rick Carter with the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office. Carter was first tipped to the gut-shot elk by another hunter, and was forced to euthanize the animal.
The four men convened around the dead bull, and the dirty work began as they field dressed the elk, removing its organs and dragging it out of the thick woods behind Carter’s four-wheeler. It would eventually be skinned and butchered, and the meat distributed either to CAPECO in Pendleton, Agape House in Hermiston or the Ukiah School District.
“Luckily someone called it in,” Gardner said. “Otherwise it would have been left here to rot.”
Despite the fact that someone clearly committed a crime, Gardner said there is very little evidence to pursue a case. Without finding a bullet or even a footprint, it is unlikely they will be able to catch the culprit.
“Really, we’ve got nothing,” he said. “I don’t even have a reason to believe they tracked it that far.”
Carter, a retired OSP Fish and Wildlife trooper, said it is unlikely an experienced hunter would mistake the three-point bull for a spike. It is a maddening situation, Gardner agreed, compounded by the fact that it was nearly left to waste.
“Somebody rushed a shot before they knew what was on its head,” Gardner said. “And it happens every year.”
‘That’s cool to see’
Hunters are the number one wildlife management tool in Oregon, Gardner said, and most of the people he meets are more than happy to help him catch those who break the rules.
“Out here, I come in contact with really super nice people,” he said.
In fact, Gardner was recognized Oct. 17 with an award from the Oregon Hunters Association Columbia Basin Chapter for his work investigating two recent poaching cases, one in Baker County and one in Umatilla County, that both ended in convictions.
Dean Groshong, chapter president, said the goal is to preserve the hunting tradition for future generations.
“Everybody is basically responsible to help out and prevent any wrongdoing,” Groshong said. “It’s just not fair and not acceptable for people to break the law.”
While on patrol, Gardner frequently stops to visit with hunters huddled around their campfire or passing by in their vehicles to chat, which he said is the best way to learn about what is happening on any given day in the otherwise remote areas of the forest.
Finally, Gardner arrives at a camp where 14-year-old Steven Stanley, of The Dalles, has just returned from a successful hunt. Stanley proudly tags his spike, which brings a smile to Gardner’s face.
“That’s cool to see,” Gardner said. “It makes me remember how I felt when that happened for me, and it shows me it will continue.”