for National Geographic News
On a remote U.S. Forest Service road in Arizona a few years ago, the driver of a white minivan slowly rolls to a stop, sticks a rifle out the window, and starts firing at what look to be wild turkeys.
State officers hiding in nearby bushes emerge, running toward the vehicle and shouting: "Game and Fish Department! Cease fire! Put down your weapon!"
The driver speeds off, but is caught a short distance down the dirt road by another officer. The hunter is cited for discharging a weapon from a vehicle—a U.S. $500 fine.
Conservationists estimate that, for every animal killed legally in a hunting season, one animal is lost to poaching.
But year-round sting operations—like the one conducted near Young, Arizona, and in nearly every other U.S. state—are helping to level the playing field by saving wildlife from being illegally killed or captured for the pet trade.
"I consider it like a bait car that police departments use to apprehend people who are stealing vehicles," explains Arizona Game and Fish Department officer Ken Dinquel.
For nearly 20 years, the Oregon State Police Department's Fish and Wildlife Division has run a decoy operation targeting violators who hunt off-season from their cars and roadways or at night with the aid of a spotlight.
Under state law, firing at a wildlife enforcement decoy is considered the same as firing at a live animal. All the same penalties apply.
"The people that shoot at decoys are wildlife thieves," said Lt. Steve Lane. "They're not hunters."
These animals look and act just like the real things.
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