Ethics of shed hunting

Every hunter loves finding a good antler, they are amazing, aren’t they? Think about this, antlers are the fastest normal growing tissue known to man, with the only exceptions being tumors and embryos. During the growth process, an elk or deer’s antlers can grow up to an inch or more a day. Here is a little known fact: the pedicle, which is the region of the skull where an antler grows from, contains material that causes the antlers to grow and scientists have actually conducted experiments in which they transplant material from an antler pedicle of a deer, to the forehead of a mouse, resulting in an antler-like growth.

Shed hunting has grown significantly over the past several years. Now just about every hunter I know spends at least a couple days every spring combing the hills hoping to pick up some brown gold and truthfully, despite what my wife says, it makes sense.

There are several benefits to getting out and doing some shed hunting. First, it is a great way to stay active, burn some calories and maintain or improve your fitness levels. Second, shed hunting is a great way to scout for the upcoming fall hunts. Turning up a big buck or bull shed can provide critical information into where you should focus your summer scouting efforts. Finding sheds can also give you inside information into the future potential of any given unit or location. Third, it is a big help if you happen to need some new hunting gear, or a way to cover your taxidermy costs from the previous year. Shed antlers are being sold at a $/per lb rate that is likely as high as I can remember. Finally, shed hunting is just plain fun. If you are just getting started, hopefully these are some tips here that can help. If you are a seasoned shed hunter, hopefully this will help us remember that we also have ethical responsibilities to uphold even when shed hunting. 

Timing and ethics

Antler shedding is due to dropping testosterone levels. When this occurs, a layer of cells, called the osteoclast, will cause the base to weaken by absorbing calcium from the antlers. Eventually the antlers will drop off or may be knocked off while raking, sparring, or even while running or walking. Individual animals shed at different times, as can each individual antler. I’ve observed a giant bull packing one antler almost a mile away from where the first was shed. Also knowledgeable shed hunters generally share the opinion that the larger mature animals are among the earliest to shed, although that is not always the case.

Mule deer and even white-tailed deer can shed anytime between late December and into April or May. Elk typically shed during the month of March with a few smaller bulls carrying antlers into April or early May. Living in Utah, I have only ever picked up a handful of moose paddles, but from my understanding, they typically shed between December and March. 

Unfortunately, bucks and bulls shed and many hunters take to the field to gather antlers during the worst time of the year for the animals. Due to cold and wet conditions, wildlife are extremely vulnerable this time of year. As shed hunters, there are some general guidelines we can and should follow to alleviate potential impacts. Many roads and trails across the West have seasonal closures to protect wildlife during this critical time period. Obeying those laws is not some arbitrary guideline, I genuinely believe that these laws are trying to protect wildlife and doing so will make a difference in our herds in the long run. Do not take motorized vehicles off designated roads and trails. 

During this time of year habitat conditions are saturated and off road travel will destroy habitat and leave rutting for many years to come. It also has the potential to bump wintering wildlife causing them to utilize already depleted resources.

It should go without saying, but the best way to pick up a set of sheds from a buck or bull that you have observed is to leave that animal alone, only watching from a distance, until they shed and have moved off. Modern optics has given us the ability to watch wildlife from great distances — use them and you will be much more likely to pick up those sheds later and the animal will be better off for it.

Do not chase or harass an animal in hopes of getting a shed to drop, that includes allowing a pet to chase them. It does not work, it is illegal, and it is just not the right thing to do. In recent years, trail cameras seem to be flooding the market and have gone from what was primarily a summer scouting tool to a year round hobby. If trail cameras are utilized to capture wintering wildlife photos, I would suggest that measures be taken to avoid excessive stress to wildlife. 

The more often we invoke stress by bumping animals the less likely they are to successfully survive and thrive the following spring and summer. We have all probably heard that we should not feed wintering wildlife, and I would maintain that sentiment in using feed to attract bucks or bulls in an attempt to pick up sheds. Feeding hay or something else has the potential to congregate wildlife, which in turn can increase the spread of disease, attract predators, and ultimately can kill deer as their digestive systems may not be able to adapt.

Finally, shed hunting has been such a hot button issue recently that several states have passed laws and regulations that specifically address shed hunting. Currently, those laws are relatively simple and we are largely able to collect sheds without too many over extending guidelines. My hope is that individually we think about that and act accordingly in order to maintain our opportunity to shed hunt. 

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