With roughly two weeks left before the scheduled opening day of one of Wyoming’s most anticipated shed antler hunting seasons, the treasure hunts might have to be delayed.
An exceptionally brutal winter is to blame, said Wyoming Game and Fish Department Chief Game Warden Rick King.
“Right now, in some places, we’re still seeing (game) tied to the heart of their winter ranges,” he said.
The shed antler hunting season is set to open across much of western Wyoming at 6 a.m. on May 1. But because so many big game animals are still trapped by deep, hard-crusted snow, that might have to be delayed, King said.
King spoke at the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission meeting early Monday in Casper. The commission has authority to set season dates for hunting seasons, including for shed antlers.
King requested that game wardens and wildlife biologists be given another week to assess the situation before presenting the commission with a formal recommendation April 24. The commissioners agreed.
A Significant Season
The upcoming shed antler hunting season is significant because it’s the last one in which nonresidents will be on an even playing field with Wyomingites.
The Wyoming Legislature earlier this year passed bills giving resident shed hunters a weeklong head start over out-of-staters, and it also requires non-residents to buy a $21.50 Wyoming conservation stamp.
Both of those measures take effect July 1, which means this May 1 was set to be the last hurrah for nonresident shed hunters.
Bull elk and buck deer usually shed their antlers in late winter or early spring. Buck pronghorn also shed their horn sheaths at roughly the same time.
A Popular Pastime
Shed hunting in spring and early summer has gained increasing popularity in recent years. Many enthusiasts take it as an opportunity to get outdoors early in the year.
There’s also money in it.
Fresh elk and deer antlers can fetch a handsome price from artists and craftspeople who use them to make things such as chandeliers.
Popular shed hunting areas – such as National Forest land adjacent to elk feeding grounds near Jackson – have drawn ever-larger crowds. The opening morning of shed hunting season there has frequently seen treasure seekers lined up shoulder-to-shoulder waiting for zero hour.
Overcrowding was frequently cited as a reason for the bills restricting shed hunting for nonresidents during legislative discussion. However, some opponents of the bills said making nonresidents miss that prime opening week could hurt Wyoming’s tourism industry.
Josiah Baer of northwest Montana previously told Cowboy State Daily that his family plans vacations to Wyoming during shed hunting season. He said it was disappointing to hear about the mandated delay, but that he also understands the need to thin out mobs on opening day.
Oregon resident Craig Bell, who makes vinyl stickers themed around Wyoming shed hunting, told Cowboy State Daily that he’s also been coming to Wyoming every spring for years to shed hunt. But he also understands the frustration with crowds, which he said he’s seen grow exponentially over the past few years.
Animals Just Aren’t Moving
During a normal year, herds have moved off their winter range by the time shed antler hunting season starts. That means they won’t be disturbed by crowds seeking the antlers and horn sheaths left behind, King said.
“Typically, by the end of March we see animals start to move off the winter range,” he said.
In the Laramie region, things are looking good because several warm, windy days recently melted off much of the snow there, he said.
However, “that’s about where the good news ends,” King said.
Just about anywhere to the west, many herds are still locked in by stubborn snow and can’t move out of areas where bucks and bulls have dropped their antlers, King said. Allowing shed hunters in before the herds leave would put too much stress on animals already barely hanging on after an especially vicious winter.
After taking better stock of the situation this week, wildlife managers can give the Game and Fish Commission a definitive answer about whether the shed hunting season should be postponed and, if so, for how long, King said.