Is shed hunting ethical?

A Utah conservationist weighs the hobby’s popularity with its moral stakes.

 

Just shy of seven years ago, I moved from the Midwest to Utah to work for the state as an aquatics biologist. On my first winter hike, I slumped over with fatigue as more experienced people hiked past me. Nevertheless, I soon fell in love with the mountains and, eventually, I discovered big-game hunting. Though I had fished in my childhood, I’d never gone hunting, and I was dazzled by the inspirational stories I heard from my new friends and colleagues.

“Are you going shed hunting this year?”

Finally, I bought a bow. I scouted every weekend I could, and in late August, I called in a spike elk that my hunting partner shot in a big marshy meadow near Kamas, Utah. The animal’s meat filled our freezer and will feed us for the next nine months.

Lately, however, I’ve been pummeled time after time with a kind of hunting question that I’d never heard before: “Are you going shed hunting this year?”

Elk and deer prefer to avoid human disturbances — things like roads, energy development, bicyclists, hikers and snowmobiles. During the winter, the animals’ fat reserves decrease drastically, and human intrusion — even when the humans don’t know that wildlife are around — means that the animals react and burn extra calories that they might not be able to afford to lose, decreasing their chances of survival. This is especially true for pregnant cows and does: One disturbance can often mean the difference between life and death.

Shed hunting — the gathering of shed antlers in the wild, often to sell — sounds innocuous. But as a hunter and a biologist, I’ve seen the impacts of its burgeoning popularity, and I’m increasingly disturbed by the trend.

An antler hunter packs out his day’s find on national forest lands near Jackson, Wyoming.

FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, humans have used shed antlers as raw materials for tools. But recently, shed hunting has morphed into a commercial enterprise. These days, a collector can get around $18 per pound for a modest shed, compared to just over a $1.50 in 1974. From 2009 to 2018, the price of shed antlers at the annual U.S. Fish and Wildlife Boy Scout Elk Auction rose steadily at an average rate of 8%.

YouTube channels, Instagram pages, Twitter feeds and Facebook groups are dedicated to the selling, buying and promotion of shed hunting as a sport and moneymaking business. Antlers are transformed into dog chews, chandeliers, curtain holders, mantel décor, knife handles, table legs, coat hangers, lampstand bases, jewelry — and even toilet paper holders.

And prices can vary wildly: On eBay, a chandelier made of elk, moose, caribou and deer antlers was selling for nearly $10,000. Inflation alone cannot account for the current price of antlers, while the phenomenon of the pricey DIY chandelier variety seems to be confined to a niche market willing to pay top dollar for such creations.

Inflation alone cannot account for the current price of antlers, while the phenomenon of the pricey DIY chandelier variety seems to be confined to a niche market willing to pay top dollar for such creations.

The increasing popularity of shed hunting means that more people are on the landscape during the winter and early spring — a time that is often unforgiving for deer and elk. Seven Western states have passed laws that close shed hunting in certain wildlife areas to try to decrease the stress deer and elk experience on their winter ranges.

But according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission, trespassing onto these sanctuary areas and private lands is increasing — driven, in part, by the popularity of chic antler products. In 2017, Utah wildlife managers closed public lands to shed hunting until April, so that deer and elk could conserve their energy given that year’s heavy snows. During the first two weeks of that closure, 16 people were cited for violating it. “In some of these cases, the person stated they knew the shed antler gathering season was closed but they couldn’t resist the temptation,” said Mitch Lane, a conservation officer with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Lane’s observation echoes what some of my friends have said: Shed hunting is a fun way to make money, and they don’t plan to stop.

LAST MARCH, I made a choice: I turned down invitations to go shed hunting, but I went outdoors anyway.

I spent a weekend camping in the Uinta Mountains. The pine- and aspen-covered mountains were so cold that I saw my breath during peak daylight hours. The snow was so deep that I sank into it, buried just like the grasses and shrubs around me. I thought of the deer and elk foraging here, in crucial winter habitat.

I observed birds and built a campfire, but I did not scour the snowy landscape for sheds. When I got home, a colleague asked me if I had looked for antlers. Proudly, I said, “No,” satisfied that it was the right thing.

As a hunter, I feel that giving deer and elk their space during this crucial time is the least I can do.

Ashley Kijowski is a fledgling bowhunter and wildlife biologist based in Salt Lake City. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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