Transmitters like those used to track peregrine falcons and gray whales are helping police track stolen merchandise.

The Utah County sheriff's office has used transmitters for four years in oft-stolen items such as skis and guns, and the program has paid for itself, Utah County Sheriff Dave Bateman said."There's no way how much I could estimate it saved" in insurance costs for stolen property, Bateman said Tuesday. "It was really quite inexpensive. We had to buy some receiving equipment and transmitters initially, and my deputy has the ability to build his own transmitters.

"The other thing that we think is nifty is we go to court and ask for restitution for the county," the sheriff said, adding, "in most situations, the cost of the aircraft has been paid for by the perpetrator."

Salt Lake City is looking at implementing the program, Police Sgt. Don Campbell said.

"We are about to experience a huge problem with bike thefts. That doesn't sound like much, but when you're talking about a bike that's worth $500 to $1,500," the tab adds up, Campbell said.

The small devices emit a radio signal that is easily picked up from the air. Environmental agencies have used the devices for years to track bears, peregrines, whales and other animals.

Buildings and structures can absorb the frequencies, "but if you're up in the air, the energy goes straight up," Bateman said. "We'd have extreme difficulty picking up those frequencies a few feet away on the ground."

Bateman credits the program with helping reduce the larcenies and burglaries in Utah County - a 13 percent drop in 1987 and an additional 15 percent in 1988. The idea was first tried on skis, popular items for thieves to steal.

"We talked it over and decided with some of the minitransmitters that were available we could get it into a pair a skis" at Sundance Resort, he said. "If you use a little ingenuity and creativity in installing these, there's almost no way" to tell a transmitter is hidden inside.

Placing a transmitter in the skis or anything else in the open is not considered entrapment because thieves aren't encouraged to steal.

"If everybody sticks their skis in the snow and goes into the lodge, why can't we?" Bate-man said.

Using aircraft to pick up signals is essential. "You wouldn't believe what people would do with the stuff they've stolen," Bate-man said.

A transmitter was placed inside a gun. The weapon was stolen, wrapped in the same material used for garbage bags and buried in the ground with a pile of coal placed on top of it. "And we still found it."

Airplanes cost about $35 an hour to rent, said Campbell, who is looking to transmitters to reduce thefts in Salt Lake.

An average of 25 cars are reported broken into and damaged by thieves prowling around during Utah Jazz basketball games.

"So you figure there's got to be 60 or 70 at that rate" which are actually rifled during the game, the sergeant said.

And Campbell said the devices would help officers track merchandise back to the fences, who sell property out of the area. When police shut down a fence's operation, "the supply side falls off."