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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....