DRAGNET MEETS THE CHESNIMNUS
It's 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday in Wallowa County. Oregon State Police game trooper Mark Knapp is in place clean shaven and in a clean uniform. At age 29, he's been on the job six years.
He's positioned himself on a frozen dirt road 1 1/2 hours north of Enterprise in the Chesnimnus hunting unit.
This is where the action will be opening day he thinks.
He is wrong. His radio cuts through the darkness with a message from the dispatcher in Medford. A landowner has called to report trespassers on his property near the buttes. Knapp heads back toward town. He finds the trio and issues them citations for criminal trespass. It's the second time for one of the men, he said.
The property owner was out to hunt his land, but that has been interrupted.
Oregon and Alaska are the only states where the state police are in charge of enforcing fish and game laws. Wallowa County has Knapp and three other officers to cover 3,500 square miles more than the size of the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. "It'd be as big as Texas if all the wrinkles were ironed out," one old-timer muses.
It's daylight now and Knapp heads back to the road on public land where he was earlier. He stops at a camp.
"Hello, state police. Knock. Knock. Anybody in camp?"
He will check camps all day long for hunters' elk tags, as well as checking tags of hunters he meets along the road.
"Had any luck? See anything?" he asks.
"Nope, but we sure heard a lot of shooting this morning. Are you going to tell us where the herds are?"
He recommends they check out the Table Mountain area.
Knapp is also looking for road-closure violations. He finds a couple parked on one of the closed roads. They are scouting for future firewood trees. They say that they were not aware that the roads were closed during this eight-day season.
"We all make mistakes," he responds.
The ever polite Knapp gives them a verbal warning that sounds more like friendly advice. He also gives them a map of the road closures.
He continues to check camps. Everyone receives him cordially some anxious to recount a story or two. Knapp has a lot of ground to cover, but he remains a few minutes. "It's good to develop a rapport," he says.
Sure enough, at the next camp, hunters report that a vehicle has been driven out on a road closure. Knapp thanks them for the tip and heads out the ridge.
There, he and the hunter greet each other amiably. The hunter shows his tag and driver's license. Knapp runs the license through radio dispatch. The dispatcher says the man's license is suspended, and that he was
previously convicted of
driving under the influence of intoxicants.
Knapp seizes the license. He smells alcohol on the man's breath, but does not have enough evidence to cite him. He tells him that he smells the alcohol, that he can't be drinking and driving, and advises him to park the pickup at the nearby camp. Oregon State Police game officers are also charged with enforcing all state criminal law.
On this sunny Indian summer day, whenever Knapp gets off the main road even crawling along the tires flip mud clear up onto the windshield.
Dispatch calls again. A hunter has accidentally shot a cow elk and wants to report it. Not realizing it is hours away, she asks Knapp to check it out. He refers her to the game officer covering that area. Monitoring the radio will confirm that the other officer has salvaged the meat, to be given to a humanitarian agency.
By noon, Knapp greets a hunter approaching the road. "Can you tell me where I am? I got turned around, and got myself lost." It's his first hunt. Knapp gives him a ride back to his camp, as he has others earlier in the day.
Knapp hits the road again. Soon he stops to talk with another hunter and check his tag. Everyone has been cooperative. They know the drill. They are all safety conscious too. They eject the shells out of the their gun and leave the breach open.
Most everyone out here is law abiding, Knapp explains.
Then he gets the call he dreads. The dispatcher says that the same landowner from the morning now has people shooting near his property, and there are wounded elk on his property. One is a cow elk illegal to shoot.
Knapp again turns away from his preferred duties and heads toward town. It has been a long day for the owner, who says he has yet to be able to hunt.
Knapp locates a young hunter on his first hunt, and tells him he can kill a wounded bull to fill his tag. He tells him and his father that he can also put the wounded cow down. He asks the youth if he would help him by gutting the cow so that the meat can be salvaged.
Knapp then goes out to meet three men who appeared to have done the shooting. They admit that they may have wounded the bull, but not the cow. They were coming to ask the landowner if they could pursue the wounded bull.
Knapp has dealt with one man before. He asks him to lower his voice. The trio admits to having fired some 15 shots after one of the men had tagged another bull. Knapp reminds that man that he can no longer hunt after that.
Knapp questions how only two of the men could have fired 15 times in quick succession. "Are you calling me a liar?" the man fumes.
After the confrontation, Knapp is back on the road checking camps. Two more have elk that have been properly tagged.
They report another wounded cow out at Indian Village. Knapp discusses the best way to get there. It's so far away that he fears that he cannot salvage both animals.
It's 4:30 p.m. Knapp is back at the site of the first wounded cow on the private property.
It's getting dark. He doesn't know if the young hunter located the cow.
Knapp is frustrated sitting in his pickup waiting to find out if he will be out in the dark and cold skinning a cow and taking the meat to town taking him even farther away from his preferred duties.
At 7:30 p.m. he learns that the father and son have shot the wrong elk, on yet someone else's private property.
Things have gotten complicated all over again.
Story, photos by Gary Fletcher