PENDLETON (AP) — Daylight broke one early November 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, including 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."
Nov. 4 marked the first day of the second season for rifle elk hunting in Oregon; the season ran through 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 that 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.
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.