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Wyoming Game & Fish to Consider Antler Hunting Season
Local antler hunters disagree over the idea
By: Rob Shaul -- The Sublette County Journal

At its meeting in Cheyenne today, the Wyoming Game & Fish Commission will consider a new regulation that sets a season for antler hunting. The agency is concerned that overzealous hunters harass deer and elk in the pursuit of antlers, causing the animals to repeatedly flee or move during the time of year when they are weakest. This may stress the animals and even lead to death for some.

To address this, the Commission will consider a regulation that wouldn't allow antler hunting to begin until May 1. Local antler hunters have differing opinions concerning this proposal.

Popular and Lucrative

Many locals don't know how big a deal antler hunting, especially mule deer antler hunting, is in Sublette County. Each fall, tens of thousands of mule deer migrate from the forests to one of three major winter ranges in the county - the Big Piney/LaBarge range, the Mesa, and Big Sandy. Thousands of elk migrate from the high country to feedgrounds dotted throughout the county.

Approximately a quarter of all these are antler-bearing males, and beginning in January, these bulls and bucks start to shed their antlers. Once the first antler drops, says Big Piney Game Warden Brad Hovinga, "the antler hunting season begins."

Antler hunting has increased in popularity each of the six years Mr. Hovinga's been in Big Piney. In addition to locals, antler hunters from other Wyoming towns such as Cody and Thermopolis, and other states such as Idaho and Utah, travel to Sublette County during the late winter and early spring to pick up shed antlers.

What's the main draw? Money. According to Don Schaufler, President of Montana's Tridon, Inc., the largest antler dealer and broker in the lower 48 states, recently shed elk antlers bring $4-$6.50 per pound and fresh mule deer antlers bring from $10 - $15 per pound. The elk antlers are primarily ground up and shipped to the orient to be used for medicinal purposes.

Mule deer antlers have no medicinal value, says Mr. Schaufler. Rather, these antlers are used primarily in crafts, such as knife handles, and for furniture and other decorations. His own company makes chandeliers out of mule deer racks.

Most antler hunters do so recreationally, says Mr. Hovinga. Many local families spend time walking the sagebrush just to get out of the house during the spring, and really don't make much money from the antlers. Others, however, handsomely supplement their annual incomes collecting the sheds. Some hunters collect hundreds of pounds of antlers each year, Brad continues, and "literally can bring in $10,000 to $15,000."

This kind of money leads to popularity and heated competition. Each winter, out-of- state groups come in and actually camp on the Piney/LaBarge winter range. "They spend two to three weeks, hunting for antlers every day," says Mr. Hovinga.

On the surface, antler hunting seems harmless. Antlers are a renewable resource, and offer a non-consumptive use of wild game. However, explains Mr. Hovinga, antler hunters, especially those on 4-wheelers and snowmobiles, can harass the elk and deer when they are most vulnerable - during late winter and early spring, when their reserves are low. The increased number of people hunting antlers has led to more and more competition and earlier and earlier disturbance of the animals, says Mr. Hovinga. "People are literally out there right when the antler drops," in January.

Antler hunters have been known to scare elk off feedgrounds, and there are reports that antler hunters on vehicles have run deer to death. "Done right, it's one of the greatest non-consumptive uses of wildlife," says Game Warden Hovinga, "but done improperly, you end up with problems and restrictions."

The proposed season would prohibit antler hunting until May 1, when the deer and elk would be well off the winter range. It would be illegal to possess freshly shed antlers when the season is closed (Jan. 1 - Apr. 30).

Another Regulation that Won't Work?

Steve and Mary Stager of Big Piney have hunted antlers for twenty years - long before it became lucrative and popular. Years ago, says Steve, he and his family could collect 800-1,200 pounds of antlers a day. "We used to be able to fill a horse trailer a day," but Mr. Stager contends the Wyoming Range mule deer population has been depleted to the point that this isn't possible any more.

The Stagers use horses to hunt for antlers. "We stay away from the game. We don't bother 'em," says Mr. Stager. However, Steve has seen antler hunters on 4-wheelers and snowmobiles run close to the animals, and even chase specific deer trying to get them to drop their antlers.

Mr. Stager believes the use of motorized vehicles to hunt antlers should be made illegal, but is adamantly against setting a season which restricts antler hunting by foot or horseback. He maintains that antler hunting is a tradition for his family, and that the Stagers hunt antlers more for exercise and enjoyment than anything else. He believes an antler hunting season would be just another unnecessary regulation infringing on his freedom to enjoy the outdoors.

Further, Mr. Stager says the regulation simply won't work. "There is just too much activity out there [on the winter range]," says Mr. Stager, referring to the oilfield and other activity. He believes people will pick up horns regardless of the season restriction.

Montana antler buyer Don Schaufler agrees that an antler hunting season is unnecessary and an infringement. He maintains that antler hunters on foot "cannot run fast enough to harass animals." Mr. Schaufler has heard of isolated incidents where animals were severely harassed by antler hunters on vehicles, but believes most antler hunters are ethical.

Schaufler thinks the Game & Fish is using an isolated incident, and "blowing it out of proportion" because the agency has an agenda to increase restrictions.

Also, Mr. Schaufler doesn't feel shed antlers are part of a big game animal, and therefore should not be regulated by the G&F. "Once they're shed naturally," says Mr. Schaufler, "they are no longer an animal part. Rather, they are a 'natural curiosity.'"

According to Schaufler, elk antlers in Yellowstone are considered natural curiosities. Only the National Park Service has jurisdiction over such sheds, because it owns the land. Since G&F doesn't own the land antler hunters search on, he argues, G&F has no right to regulate antler hunting.

Mr. Schaufler agrees with Mr. Stager that in all practicality, an antler hunting season will simply not work. As evidence, he cites similar laws concerning state-run feedgrounds in Montana. "It's a joke," he says. "The season begins at midnight with people out there with flashlights." All the season would do is make "crooks," out of good people, says Mr. Schaufler. He concludes, "It's really not ethically or morally wrong as long as you're not bothering the animals."

"A Good Thing"

Pinedale's Terry Reach disagrees, and feels an antler hunting season "would be a good thing." Mr. Reach hunts antlers himself, and is an antler buyer in the county.

Terry acknowledges that most of the harassment to the animals comes from antler hunters on 4-wheelers and snowmobiles. However, he thinks there would be another advantage to a season - it would make antler hunting more fair.

"I think it would be good for everybody," says Mr. Reach, "It would give everybody a fair shake, an equal chance," at the antlers. Today, antler hunters, driven by increased competition, start hunting earlier and earlier, say Mr. Reach, and not everyone gets the same opportunity to find antlers.

An antler hunting season would decrease disturbance to the animals, and give the deer a better chance to settle in says Terry. "I really do think it [antler hunting] affects the deers' health." Mr. Reach is especially concerned about antler hunting's effects on the weaker fawns.

Finally, Terry believes an antler hunting season could decrease poaching.

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Article courtesy of The Sublette County Journal.