Horn hunters face hard times

  • A Boy Scout offers antlers for sale at the Jackson Hole antler auction, where the price per pound is down almost $5 from its peak

    Lucas J. Gilman
 

For centuries, Asian men have consumed powdered antlers to try to boost their sexual performance, a tradition that’s helped fuel today’s demand for deer and elk antlers. Recently, though, the rising popularity of Viagra has "just about finished off" the Asian market, says Mike Aldrich, of Pinedale, Wyo., who buys and sells antlers.

But more than advances in aphrodisiacs are hurting the West’s "horn hunters," who gather shed antlers for profit.

Elk farmers have flooded the market with antlers sawed from captive animals, driving down the price of antlers from the wild, Aldrich says. Fears of mad cow disease, which can be carried by wildlife, have caused some customers to shy away from the real thing. And manufacturers of chandeliers and lamps are switching to fake antlers, made of plastic resin, because they’re cheaper to obtain and use.

All this is beginning to affect a Wyoming tradition. Every spring in Jackson, hundreds of Boy Scouts collect tons of elk antlers from the nearby National Elk Refuge, then auction them off. The auction is a fund-raiser for the Scouts and the refuge, and it’s also the best gauge of market prices.

Prices peaked in 1989 at $14.07 per pound, but at last May’s auction, the average price per pound was only $9.17. Adjusted for inflation, that’s less than half the historic high.

A big, dramatic pair of antlers, valuable as a trophy, can still fetch thousands of dollars. But because of the declining market, says veteran horn hunter Tyler Wilson, of Boulder, Wyo., "Many horn hunters have just given up."