By Dave Buchanan
As spring comes to western Colorado, the signs of winter linger.
Snowbanks hang on high mountain ridges, rivers fill to overflowing, and scattered across the high country, recently dropped deer and elk antlers tell of an annual process of loss and renewal.
For many people, it’s these antlers, commonly called shed antlers or simply sheds, that bring them out of their winter hiding. Some antlers collectors do it for the money, some for the exercise, some simply to get outside.
Try it once and you, too, may get hooked.
“Every year you see more and more people get into antler hunting,” said Randy Clark, owner of Traders Rendezvous in Gunnison. “We’re cooped up all winter and as soon as the season opens up, there are people out there all the time.”
Clark, one of the largest antler dealers in Colorado, grew up in the Gunnison area and said he’s seen shed antler collecting go from an occasional pastime to frequent family outings.
“For most people, it’s the enjoyment of being outdoors in the spring,” Clark said. “It’s like a grown-up Easter egg hunt because you don’t know what’s over the next ridge.”
Some antler collectors, lured by the prices for prime antlers reaching as high as $14 a pound, pick up sheds aiming to sell them.
But that’s rare, cautioned Grand Junction taxidermist Darryl Powell, who has found, sold and bought uncounted tons of antlers during his years in business.
“People hear about that $14 a pound but that’s only for the very best antlers,” he said. “Most guys don’t get anywhere near that.”
The biggest sales are held each May at the Antler Rendezvous in Alpine, Wyo., and a few days later at the 50-year old Elkfest at Jackson Hole, Wyo.
The shows attract antler dealers and enthusiasts from across the U.S. and foreign countries to sell, trade and simply dicker over elk, deer and moose antlers, mounted big-game heads and all manner of Western collectibles.
“There are lots of people who are just into sheds and don’t even think about selling them,” Powell said. “They just like to find them and have them around to look at and show their friends.”
But that can be too habit-forming, cautioned Clark.
“Yeah, you’ll get guys who collects antlers for years and I’ll ask them if they want to sell any and they’ll say no,” he said with a laugh.
“Then, one day the wife says, “You sure got a lot of antlers here,” and they take the hint and then they call me.”
Many Western states have some restrictions on antler collecting although Colorado, for several reasons, has the tightest regulations.
Some of those reasons – severity of its winters, the growing popularity of shed-antler hunting, and perhaps mostly the concentration of wintering big game on public lands within easy access of the public – all contribute to regulations limited when and where shed-hunting may take place.
Mule deer can shed their antlers anytime from late December to April or early May and elk generally drop their antlers in March or April, while most of the animals still are on their winter range.
Would-be antler collectors have been known to harass animals on their winter range in hopes of forcing antlers to drop.
Because this harassment can greatly increase stress on wintering animals and potentially increase winter mortality, wildlife agencies across much of the West have begun restricting access or prohibiting antler collection until the snow melts.
“This is about protecting these animals,” said Perry Will, Area Wildlife Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Glenwood Springs.
“People need to understand that when big game expends critical energy by running from human activity this time of year, it will lead to higher mortality. We will do what we need to do to prevent that.”
In response to both extreme weather and the growing pressure of human activity on wintering game herds, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife has approved restrictions on shed antler collecting across the Western Slope.
Generally, since these regulations may change before this coming winter, collecting shed antlers is prohibited on selected public lands between Jan. 1 through March 15.
Between March 15 and May 15, collecting was allowed only between 10 a.m. through sunset.
Last year, this included portions of Gunnison, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, and Routt counties, as well as parts of western Moffat County from March 3-April 15.
These regulations may change for 2018; check with the local Parks and Wildlife and Bureau of Land Management offices for the latest updates.
Last winter, for the first time shed-antler restrictions were imposed in an area north of Craig. Winter struck hard along and north of the Colorado-Wyoming line. The Wyoming, the Game and Fish Department reported that in parts of the area there were no fawns that survived the winter.
“Shed hunting has become a season of its own,” said Bill DeVergie, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager from Meeker. “A lot of people like to go out and do it and lot of people are trying to make money doing it.”
But if there is a downside to antler collecting, it’s created by the uneven lure of money.”
“Unfortunately, common sense has flown out the window,” Randy Clark said. “The deer are belly deep in snow and already in a critical situation and the guys are chasing them, hoping to see an antler fall off. It’s doesn’t make any sense.”
Here, according to various state wildlife agencies, are some of the regulations concerning shed antlers across the West. Remember to contact the wildlife agency in the individual states for the latest news.
Colorado: On public lands in the Gunnison Basin (big game management units 54, 55, 551, 66 and 67), collection of shed antlers was prohibited from Jan. 1 through March 14. From March 15 through May 15, shed antler collection was prohibited from legal sunset to 10 a.m.
Similar regulations were in effect lands in in Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and Routt and an area north of Craig.
Arizona: There are no restrictions on the possession of naturally shed of cast antlers.
Nevada: Nevada hos no restrictions on shed-antler gathering.
Utah: The season normally begins April 1. However, a free antler-gathering certificate available online from the Utah DWR allows you to collet sheds from Feb. 1 –April 15. Information; dwr.utah.gov.
National parks: All objects, including deer and elk antlers, within national parks and monuments are protected by law and may not be removed. Violators may be fined to $5,000 and/or up to six months in prison.