GUNNISON BASIN, COLORADO
Josh Miller ambles slowly through the sagebrush on a cool mid-May morning, binoculars around his neck and a pair of rambunctious black Labs bounding alongside. He scans the hillsides in hopes of spotting his quarry -- not a buck deer or a bull elk, but the antlers they dropped during the winter. He's already got several antlers strapped to his backpack, and hoists a smelly deer head with a broken four-point rack. When he sets it down to peer through the binocs, the dogs try to slink off with it.
Miller, who collects shed antlers every year "just for fun," has been out roaming the hills northeast of Gunnison since dawn, hoping for a big haul. The Gunnison Basin, in the southwest part of the state, boasted some 21,000 mule deer last year, and today marks the start of antler-hunting season, following the first year of a new ban on antler-gathering from March 15 to May 15. Earlier in the year, an emergency closure, caused by deep snow, shut off most public-lands access for months.
Antler collecting, long popular in places like Wyoming's National Elk Refuge, is gaining ground in Colorado and other Western states. "It's more than a hobby," says Mel Lloyd, a spokeswoman with the Bureau of Land Management. "It's an outright industry." Freshly dropped dark-gray antlers, used in chandeliers and other crafts, sell for $7 to $15 a pound, and serious collectors can gather hundreds of dollars' worth in a day. Now, wildlife managers are clamping down to help protect winter-stressed deer and other animals, already beleaguered by urban sprawl, energy development and drought. "What I find frustrating and ironic," says J Wenum, Gunnison manager for the state's Division of Wildlife, "is that many of these folks are really deer enthusiasts. But they're hurting deer over the long term, especially if they're out there at an inappropriate time of the year."
In the Gunnison Basin this winter, thousands of mule deer starved to death in four feet of snow, despite emergency feeding. Jumbled heaps of hide and sun-bleached bones dot the roadsides and fields, but antlers, attached to skulls or not, are surprisingly rare. The sheds Miller has found are all old, beginning to splinter and turn white. "It's already been picked over," he says with some disgust. Because the new ban prohibited only antler gathering, "a lot of shed hunters became 'hikers' instead," he says, risking a $68 fine and five points off their hunting licenses for the sake of fresh antlers.
This spring's ban was meant to protect the imperiled Gunnison sage grouse, which was denied Endangered Species Act protection in 2006 despite dwindling populations. Spring is a critical time for the grouse, when males strut on leks early in the morning to attract females. Prohibiting all human disturbance during mating season wasn't practical, says Kenny McDaniel, Gunnison BLM field manager: "It's a pretty big deal for us to close off public lands to all activities for two months." Shed collectors tend to travel off-trail more than do hikers or mountain bikers, so the state wildlife commission shut down antler gathering.
But that ban could end up hurting elk and deer, says Wenum, if shed hunters start coming out earlier in the winter, when herds are weak from pawing through snow in search of forage. Running from disturbance burns an animal's energy reserves and lessens its chances of surviving the winter. And some collectors get downright aggressive. "We've had reports of people on snowmobiles chasing herds of deer over fences, trying to make their antlers fall off," says Joe Lewandowski of the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "We've given tickets to people stalking herds."
Wildlife managers in other Western states have seen similar problems. The Nevada Department of Wildlife is prosecuting an antler hunter who chased deer on his ATV in late January. In eastern Oregon this spring, trespassers on the Umatilla Indian Reservation reportedly tried to lasso the antlers of live bull elk. In southern Wyoming, collectors on snowshoes chased deer into deep snow. The men had come from northern Utah, where the state bans shed hunting from Feb. 1 through April 12. Now Wyoming is considering regulating antler collection, as are Oregon and Nevada. Montana may go so far as to revoke the hunting and fishing licenses of people who violate closures.
This summer, the Colorado Division of Wildlife will consider a petition to shorten the Gunnison antler-collecting season. From March 15 to May 15, collecting would be allowed only between 9 a.m. and sunset to avoid interrupting sage grouse mating, and from Jan. 1 to March 15 -- the toughest time for deer and elk -- it would be banned entirely. "If we're gonna do this," says Randy Clark, who buys and sells antlers commercially and helped craft the proposal, "let's do it for the sage grouse -- and for the deer as well."
Back in the Basin, collectors who respected the ban are frustrated by the slim pickings. Shane Allen and Troy Templeton cruise the dirt roads east of town in a pickup with a rear window decal reading "Bone Collector: Bringin' Home the Bone" over a picture of a hunter carrying a huge pair of antlers. They've filled half the truck's bed in an afternoon of searching, but again it's mostly old weathered antlers, plus a few plastic-wrapped skulls with big racks. The ban stacks the odds against folks who obey the rules, Allen says: "It's not needed -- so long as people use their heads and don't spook the deer."
The author is HCN's associate editor.