BURLINGTON, Wash. - Poachers may want to think twice the next time they line up an animal in their crosshairs – states across the country are using robotic deer, bear, elk, grouse and other animals to combat illegal hunting.
In Washington state, for instance, the imposter animals deployed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife are not just simple decoys –they're lifelike, made with real animal pelts and controlled by a remote control. The legs bend, the heads turn and the tails wag.
"They seem real," said WDFW Sgt. Shawnn Vincent, showing KCPQ the deer decoys used to catch hunters in Skagit County. "They have real deer hide on it."
The mechanical bait animals aren't cheap however, Jim Reed of the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust told the The Washington Post. The Humane Society trust donates the decoys, which Reed said can cost as much as $2,000 for a deer and $5,000 for a bear, to busy – and often cash-strapped – anti-poaching agencies across the country.
Often times, the deer decoys are used to catch hunters who are out after regulated hours. Hunting is allowed from about 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. during the Washington state hunting season, depending on the month. Many poachers will go out after dark and use the spotlights on their car to temporarily blind the deer, making them slow to react . This is a poaching technique known as spotlighting.
It's effective, but illegal. It's also easy to spot. Fish and wildlife officers will put the robot deer on the roadside, wag its tail, and wait for poachers.
"We put (the decoys) on forest roads, anywhere people hunt," Vincent said.
The decoys are covered in real dear skin. The eyes glow in the headlights. It's only after a poacher shoots the deer and it doesn't move that the hunters know something is wrong.
"They know something is up after they shoot," Vincent said.
Wildlife officers go out often during the hunting season, which runs from September-November. Often, they don't get any poachers. But a few times, multiple parties have shot the deer in one night.
Six people were caught with the decoy deer this season in Skagit County alone. Vincent said dozens of poachers have been caught across the state.
Vincent said decoys are a great way to keep a healthy big-game population.
"Our populations - our deer, our elk, whatever in this state - they're not at the highest right now," Vincent said. "They've definitely been higher."
He sees cracking down on illegal shooting as a way to maintain a harvest for the future.
"Poaching and people going out and taking these illegally, it's taking away from the youth, the kids, everyone else," Vincent said. "This is just one way of combating that."