Antler Frenzy Leads to Possible New Wyoming Rules

By Beacon Staff

CHEYENNE – The chance to find an enormous and valuable set of antlers shed by a mighty bull elk or mule deer has been drawing ever-larger crowds of people from around the region to western Wyoming each spring.

Some look for antlers on foot. Others ride snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles. Many are so eager to go home with antlers — sometimes stacks of them — they often get too close to the areas where elk and deer congregate, and spook the herds into running.

For animals weakened by months of wallowing in deep snow and nibbling on scarce forage, running can be deadly.

“It really is a matter of life and death,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department spokesman Mark Gocke said.

The problem has prompted Wyoming to consider banning antler hunting on public land west of the Continental Divide in the state each Jan. 1 through April 30. The state Game and Fish Commission is tentatively scheduled to vote on the proposal next month.

Utah and Colorado have adopted similar regulations in recent years. Proponents of Wyoming doing the same say people from those states are now traveling to Wyoming to find antlers, putting more pressure on big game here.

“What ends up happening is that people go earlier and earlier, to a point where they’re out there before the antlers have even fallen off the animals,” Gocke said.

The ugliest scenario: Some people intentionally chase elk and mule deer on four-wheelers and snowmobiles until the exertion causes the animals’ antlers to fall off.

But opponents of banning antler collection for part of the year say it wouldn’t do any good. Wyoming is so vast and sparsely populated, they say, unethical collectors always will get the best antlers no matter what rules are passed.

“It will stop the honest people, is all it will do,” said Jim Lowe, of Casper. “These guys are going to be able to get in there, get the stuff and get out, and most of the time they’ll get away with it.”

Lowe carves antlers into door handles, buttons, bolo ties and other small items he sells through his Web site, antlershop.com. Others use antlers to make furniture, lamps and chandeliers.

Even simply mounted on a wall, antlers are big business. A large, matching elk set can fetch $500 or more.

Nowadays, Lowe buys his antlers from a supplier in Montana. Collecting his own antlers is no longer worth the effort, he said, due to the intense competition to find good ones.

Another longtime antler collector agreed. “I like to gather them, but every time I go out there there’s 15 four-wheelers and a snowmachine trying to outrun my horse or me walking,” said Tyler Wilson, of Boulder.

Many people bring their kids out to sagebrush country and value spending time outdoors as much as the opportunity to pick up an antler or two, said Mike Aldrich, owner of Into the Wilderness Trading Company in Pinedale.

“It’s a major hobby around here and gets people out, in the spring and the winter, who’ve been sitting around growing fat,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich doesn’t like how antler hunters are being accused of harassing animals. He hasn’t seen it, he said.

The proposed antler collection rule, along with dwindling mule deer numbers in the Pinedale area, has made him decide to move back to Vermont after 17 years in the Pinedale area, he said.

“Probably the last nail in it,” he said of the proposal.

For two years now, Colorado has banned antler collecting statewide from Jan. 1 through March 31. Utah banned antler collecting in its northern district for two years, but then lifted the ban this year.

Instead, people who wanted to collect antlers in northern Utah between Feb. 1 and April 15 needed to pass an online test about wintering big game. They were required to print out the test and carry it with them in the field.

Complaints from Wyoming officials were one reason for the change.

“I know they started expressing some concerns to us that the closure was causing people to hop over the border that time of year,” said Mark Hadley, spokesman for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Just over 15,000 people took the test and about 14,300 passed.

Montana has no restrictions on collecting antlers. Idaho used to have them in some areas in the eastern side of the state but hasn’t had any restrictions on collection for several years.