A couple of hours after the mid-March sun has slipped behind the Snake River Range in western Wyoming, warden Kyle Lash of the state’s game and fish department is breathing deeply as he tromps up a steep pitch on one of the first slopes freeing of snow after the long winter. In his grip is an unconventional trap: a modest-size elk antler, which has five tines and a metal chip embedded in a base that’s sealed with epoxy. It’s the second decoy shed (sheds are antlers that fall off elk, deer, and moose once a year) he’s placing here this evening, in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Lash hopes they’ll help him nab antler poachers.
“As a game warden,” Lash says, shed poaching “is definitely the hardest thing to enforce.” He gestures toward a hill across the same draw where two years ago he tried to run down someone who’d succumbed to the temptation of a decoy. The man turned off his headlamp and disappeared in a getaway car. “He saw me coming,” Lash says. “When you try to catch that person, it’s pretty hard when they go pitch black on you.”
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department warden’s decoy site in Horsethief Canyon lies five miles south of the town of Jackson, in clear view of a highway—a location meant to entice antler hunters. Picking up sheds, a western pastime, is allowed in parts of Wyoming only from May through November. The state supported a five-month long ban on collecting them west of the Continental Divide between December 1 and April 30 that coincides with public land closures prohibiting people from stepping foot on tens of thousands of acres around Jackson Hole. (Learn more: How animals got their tusks, horns, and antlers.)
The purpose is to provide refugia for winter-stressed ungulates that abound in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a 20-million-acre swath of the northern Rocky Mountains that spills out of Wyoming into Montana and Idaho. Homes, highways, and ranchland along the valley floors already impinge on these species’ prime winter range, and federal land managers had the forethought decades ago to seasonally set aside what’s left so the wild inhabitants have space to graze and browse unimpeded, helping prevent depletion of their already dwindling fat reserves.
Throughout the Rockies, the popularity of shed hunting has soared. An Instagram search of #shedhunting turns up hundreds of thousands of posts. Scroll through them, and the appeal is obvious: It’s a free, hunting-like activity that doesn’t entail killing and gives people a reason to roam over stunning, wild landscapes.
The concept is simple. Find the places where elk, deer, and moose spend the winter, then comb the terrain for the pointy protuberances that naturally drop off the animals. Antlers evolved to attract mates and fend off competing males, but when testosterone sags in the winter, the appendages are no longer necessary. Weeks after the antlers fall from their bases, next year’s set begins to emerge under an expanding velvet sheath. (Read more about why moose and others shed their antlers.)
As antler hunters flood the hills on foot, horseback, and ATVs, wildlife officials have struggled to enforce regulations meant to safeguard western big game herds. Rules like Wyoming’s five-month prohibition are relatively new, and flouting them is easy. Lash’s own policing of shed hunting is evidence of that: He’s regularly out in off-limits wildlife winter range with decoys in hand, yet he almost never gets called in by concerned citizens on the Stop Poaching hotline.
Hunting and gathering sheds has more than mere sporting appeal. A medium-size antler is worth about $150. A trophy-class bull elk’s “dead head,” with antlers attached to the skull, can fetch much more.
Southeast Idaho resident Jeremy Barry was born into an antler-buying family whose business, Tex Creek Antler, flips thousands of elk, deer, and moose sheds every year, netting a profit of about a dollar per pound. Turn the clock back a decade, and a freshly dropped brown elk antler—not yet bleached by the sun—that would sell for maybe $5 a pound goes for triple that now, Barry says.
The market is no longer driven by demand in Asia, where antlers are ground up and ingested as an aphrodisiac, with no scientifically proven efficacy. Today, it’s dog chews and western-themed home goods, such as elk antler chandeliers, that are inflating prices.
The ethics of shed collecting
Not all western states trying to police a pursuit that’s quickly catching on with the broader public are as strict as Wyoming. Since 2016, anyone who wants to snatch a shed off Utah soil between February 1 and April 15 must first take a free, 25-question online ethics course. The hope is to dissuade people from potentially harmful behavior, such as harassing a single-antlered buck in the hope that chasing it around causes the other side of its rack to fall off in plain sight.
“There’s always been problems on the winter ranges, but those problems were really starting to grow as it was becoming a much bigger craze,” says J. Shirley, a law enforcement captain for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. When the winter of 2016-17 blanketed Utah in deep snow, the state imposed an emergency shed hunting ban to protect deer and elk, whose survival was already tenuous because of the heavy snow.
Shed-crazed outdoorsmen reacted by piling onto public lands in Nevada, where regulations weren’t yet in place. (The following spring, the Nevada Department of Wildlife enacted a four-month shed hunting prohibition in six of its northern, snowier counties.) Nevada sheriffs reported a doubling of Utah residents shed hunting near the state line and a number of complaints from peeved local folk accustomed to having the hills to themselves.
Barry, who casually prospects for sheds in his spare time, sees the need for regulations dictating where and when people can collect them. “It’s because instead of a few people going out and looking, all the sudden you have hundreds,” he says. “You’re following a train of people up to the mountains.”
It’s no exaggeration. An hour and a half up the road from Barry’s home is the National Elk Refuge, where up to 10,000 elk congregate each winter. Shed hunting in the refuge itself is illegal, but when the clock strikes midnight on May 1, the adjacent Bridger-Teton National Forest is fair game. On May 1, 2018, a pilot car led 281 vehicles to trailheads where people poured onto the hills with spotlights to search for sheds.
Lawlessness is the standard, says Cris Dippel, the refuge’s deputy manager. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assigned extra law enforcement officers to help police the rush last spring, and they handed out some 30 citations for trespassing in the refuge. An untold number of people who snuck in early escaped getting caught, he said. “That’s pretty bold, to do something like that,” Dippel says. “And, in my opinion, it’s thievery. They’re stealing from the American people.”
Six days after warden Kyle Lash put out the two decoy sheds in Horsethief Canyon, the sun is about to set when he’s alerted that one of the decoys is on the move. The suspected antler thief is making his way down the hillside into a cluster of buildings around an industrial trash-transfer station.
This time, instead of giving chase, Lash waits for the suspect to come to him. A fellow game warden, Cody Schoonover, trails a car that’s leaving the property, but it’s the wrong vehicle. Meanwhile, another vehicle, possibly carrying the decoy, rolls away while Schoonover is diverted.
“I’m angry, more than anything,” Lash says after realizing the blunder.
“It was a good lick”
It takes another two weeks before the other decoy on the hillside entices a collector. Searching with the aid of infrared night vision eyewear, Lash and a National Elk Refuge counterpart find local resident James “Stu” Rollman hiding in an underpass beneath the highway. They convince him to give up his accomplice, Danny Durante, who had dashed away in the darkness. The two men had four elk antlers (one of which was the decoy) and a deer antler.
“When we closed on them, they stashed all of them and tried to run, but we caught them,” Lash says. “It was a good lick.”
A month later, Durante and Rollman stand before a Teton County judge, James Radda. Both men hang their heads and speak softly as they admit their guilt. Durante, the heist’s mastermind, is fined $1,500 and stripped of his right to hunt and fish for two years. A plea to spare his fishing privileges so he can continue to fish with his five-year-old son is rejected. Rollman was handed down a $750 fine and a one-year loss of hunting and fishing privileges.
“It’s funny,” Radda says to Durante. “You’re standing here [saying] you’re an outdoorsman—that’s why you live here. But there’s a direct correlation between picking the antlers out of season and adverse impacts on wildlife. The argument that this will deter other people from doing the same thing has merit, and hopefully your son can go fishing with some other adult.”
Lash eventually tracks down and apprehends the man who drove away the night his team followed the wrong car—an Idaho resident named Robert Halligan who confesses to pilfering the decoy shed. On May 10, as he stands on the stoop of the Teton County courthouse smoking a cigarette, Halligan claims he hadn’t known the seasonal rule about shed hunting.
“I’ll tell you this,” he says, “I wouldn’t pick up an antler right now if it was lying in the street blocking traffic.” But alleged ignorance, along with a track record of wildlife crime convictions in Idaho, don’t curry any favor with Radda. Minutes later, the judge sentences him to 10 days in jail; Halligan, looking stunned, is escorted away by a police officer.
Days later, Jackson Hole residents congregate on a cold, dreary Saturday to partake in the 52nd annual ElkFest on the town square. The main event is an auction, which returns $186,000 to benefit the National Elk Refuge and local Boy Scout troops. The product that attracts 140 registered bidders, as it did the jailed Idahoan down the street, is the elk antler.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.