Antler hunting a hobby or crime?

By Becky Bohrer, The Associated Press
Friday March 15, 2002

GARDINER — For John Clawson, finding an elk antler in the woods after a long, difficult hike is exhilarating — a rush. 

“I look at it like Easter egg hunting, finding a nice surprise,” the miner from this tiny southern Montana town says. “No two are ever the same.” 

The mix of mountain air and nature awakening help draw antler hunters like Clawson to lands near Yellowstone National Park each spring, when elk in the region’s vast herds begin the natural process of shedding their antlers. 

For most antler hunters, it is a leisure activity conducted lawfully, usually in the region’s national forests. Families make it a favorite spring pastime, much as baseball outings are in other parts of the country. Boy Scout troops sometimes gather antlers as a fund-raiser. Antler buyers set up shop in parking lots where people returning from weekend outings can sell their bounty. 

“Ninety percent, I think, do it because they like the freedom and fresh air,” said Clawson, who likes to take his children hunting with him. “They get out in the wild, and it’s like you get a prize when you get an antler.” 

But for some, antler hunting has become a highly competitive and potentially lucrative. Shed horns are sold for use overseas as health or food supplements. Some in Asia consider powdered antler to be an aphrodisiac. In the United States, craftsmen turn antler racks into knives, chandeliers and even Western furniture that can sell for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars. 

The demand worries law enforcement officers at Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Antler collecting is forbidden within the parks; park resources, from obsidian rock to wild animals, are meant to be viewed and enjoyed — not taken or disturbed. 

But the temptation can prove too great for some, who will take the risk that park rangers will be too busy with other duties to try to track them through the vast ranges. 

“I think people are getting away with a lot of stuff here,” said Dan Kirschner, a special agent with Yellowstone. “There is no way for us to physically monitor the entire boundary.” 

“In places like this, you could make several hundreds dollars in a few hours if you know where to look,” added Brian Helms, a backcountry supervisor at Yellowstone. 

In Wyoming, state game officials are considering designating a gathering season on certain lands to help control the competition for elk antlers and prevent animals from being harassed. 

At Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge, shady antler hunters monitor the antler shedding as closely as game management officials. Officials try hard to pick up antlers as quickly as they are shed to deter poaching, but admit they are not always quick enough. 

And some poachers sneak into areas set aside as winter range for the elk and closed to people on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, near Jackson, Wyo. They stash antlers to be collected later in the spring, when the winter range reopens to legal access and the antlers can be retrieved without raising suspicion. 

“Some of these guys are real crafty. They will spend the night laying out under the bushes, just like somebody fighting a war, I guess,” said Shane Wasem, a law enforcement officer with the U.S. Forest Service. 

Catching them in the act or with antlers — not just wandering the restricted areas or looking suspicious — “is a pain in the keister,” he said. 

Though poaching of elk antlers is a concern each year, park law enforcement officials cannot say just how widespread the problem is. On average, just 1 percent to 10 percent of the people committing crimes in Yellowstone are caught, Kirschner estimates. 

“It’s a crime but not against a person. So who’s going to report it?” he said.  

“It is hard to detect (the crime) and apprehend the criminal, and the payoff is big.” 

Helms said plenty of folks are willing to risk getting caught in the park where, in one day, they could find the same number of antlers it might take two or three weeks to legally gather outside Yellowstone. 

Prices for antlers are about half of what they were even a few years ago, which antler hunters blame on a poorer Asian market. But even at $4 to $5 a pound, with a large antler weighing up to 10 pounds, walking the woods isn’t too bad a day’s work. 

“Everything gets picked over,” said Jim Darr, who began hunting antlers for fun 20 years ago and now sells some of those he finds near Gardiner. 

The trade consists of a widespread network of hunters, sellers and buyers. An auction of antlers gathered at the elk refuge near Jackson each year attracts people from around the world to the Western town. 

Antlers still are sent overseas for use as food supplements, said Don Schaufler, whose Montana business is a major buyer of antlers in North America. And the market among craftsmen remains strong as well. 

“They’re still worth something,” said Schaufler, who calls it a “sin” that the Park Service lets the antlers lie on the ground. 

Antlers shed on the park floors by migrating elk are considered part of the natural ecosystem. Rodents gnaw on them for nutrients and tourists who happen across shed antlers glimpse part of nature’s cycle, said Steve Cain, a senior wildlife biologist at Grand Teton. 

Park law enforcement officers say they have to work extra hard, with a limited number of rangers responsible for various jobs and budgets that are spread thin. Grand Teton has about 25 permanent law enforcement personnel; Yellowstone has roughly 50. 

“We’re definitely worried about falling behind,” Kirschner says. 

Colin Campbell, the chief ranger at Grand Teton, says detection devices or certain markings can be placed on antlers to help officials track them. Tips from the public, he says, are invaluable. 

Park officials have painted antlers bright orange — even cut them into bits — but poachers still snatched them up, Helms says. 

Officials at Yellowstone and Grand Teton decline to be more specific about current steps taken to deter — or catch — poachers. 

“Technology definitely helps us. But as we get more technologically advanced, guess who else does?” Kirschner says. 

Some unscrupulous antler hunters go to extremes to get what they want. Jason Anderson, a spokesman with Bridger-Teton, says there have been reports of elk being chased among trees where piano wire has been strung to knock off antlers, and attempts to shoot antlers free. 

Poachers at Yellowstone often find antlers by day, sneak them out by night. Some stow away antlers for pick-up later in the year, Helms says. 


On the Net: 

Grand Teton National Park: http://www.nps.gov/grte/ 

Yellowstone National Park: http://www.nps.gov/yell/