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Chasing Elk To Death For Their Antlers

EarthFix Photo/Courtney Flatt
Troy Capps found deer antlers in central Oregon's backcountry. Capps is a co-founder of Oregon Shed Hunters, a group that promotes ethical shed hunting.

REDMOND, Ore. -- Every year deer and elk shed their antlers, and every year people try to find them. 

The sport is called shed hunting, and it's often a family affair. But some people do more than just search for dropped antlers on the ground -- they chase elk and deer to stress them out, which often causes them to drop their antlers. 

“People are running these elk while they’re really in poor condition physically,” said Capt. Richard Mann of Washington wildlife enforcement. “They may not drop dead on site, but some of them do. Once they get off, they never recover from that kind of stress, and they’ll actually die in and around the feed area.”

Washington and Oregon have imposed rules to make sure that shed hunters don’t harm elk and deer -- especially in late winter and early spring, when the male elk and deer naturally shed their antlers and start growing a new pair. 

That's also when they're most vulnerable. They’ve survived the fall hunting season and struggled through the lean winter months. They’re hungry and sometimes sick. Snow in the mountains usually concentrates herds at lower elevation, where they can find vegetation to graze on.

Wildlife managers have established winter ranges for elk and deer, restricting human access until late March or early April and prohibiting the use of motor vehicles. But shed hunters have been known to sneak into these wildlife reserves when entry is restricted so they can collect antlers or force the animals to shed them prematurely by chasing them on foot or ATVs.

Stressing elk can cause them to shed antlers:

Signs Of ATVs

Rob Tanner and his brother-in-law Troy Capps have been looking for antlers for more than 20 years. On this hunt, they’re traipsing around one of their favorite spots in central Oregon.

All signs indicate it’s going to be a good day to add to the piles of antlers they have stored in their garages.

“We’re in the prime right here,” Capps said, noticing signs that deer: deer tracks, bare bark on trees where male deer rub their newly grown, velvety antlers.

Then Capps spotted something on the ground. Signs of people, not deer.

“That’s a four-wheeler. I mean, they’re probably out here running around, and that’s wrong,” Capps said. He bent down to inspect the tire treads.

[asset-images[{"caption": "ATV tracks zig-zag through an area that's closed to motorized vehicles in the winter.", "fid": "117717", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201505/elk_-_atv_tracks.jpg", "attribution": "Credit EarthFix Photo/Courtney Flatt"}]]Despite the area’s closure to motorized vehicles, Capps believed the zigzagging four-wheeler was probably why they hadn't yet found antlers.

“As soon as I saw those, my first thought was, ahhh. You walk all the way in here and a four-wheeler came in that far,” he said. “I hate seeing that.”

Capps and Tanner founded Oregon Shed Hunters 10 years ago to promote ethical shed hunting. 

In most cases, antler chandeliers, knife handles and dog chews are the bounty of a natural cycle of antler growth. The process is similar to the loss of baby teeth.

Scott McCorquodale, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, said the new set of antlers is already growing once the old pair falls off.

"Antlers develop rapidly while growing; a large bull elk will produce antlers with a main beam of 50 to 60 inches or so in about 150 days of growing," McCorquodale said.

Antlers can sell for up to $35 per pound. A complete set from a trophy bull can bring in thousands.

Penalties for those using illegal tactics are fined rarely more than $1,000. They’re usually less than that and viewed by shed hunters as the cost of doing business.

“A couple hundred-dollar fine is not a big deal when you’re collecting $800 to $2,000 collecting antlers illegally,” Mann said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Lines of cars enter Oak Creek Wildlife Area once the gates open. Many people camped out all night to be among the first in line.", "fid": "117718", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201505/elk_-_closure_opens1.jpg", "attribution": "Credit EarthFix Photo/Courtney Flatt"}]]The problem has gained traction in the Washington state Legislature. This year, a bill was signed into law that expanded enforcement officers' ability to ticket people who enter private land to collect wildlife parts.

Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, introduced the bill after a constituent complained of illegal shed hunters chasing elk with dogs onto his private property.

“The people that they were citing, they simply said they're happy to pay the trespassing fine and the fees if they keep the sheds,” Schmick said at a committee hearing. "This bill is trying to address that problem. Now the Fish and Wildlife will be able to confiscate the sheds, the antlers, when they're found with them on private property. On state property it's already legal to do that."

Catching Trespassers

At Central Washington’sOak Creek Wildlife Area, an elk herd grazed on a hillside.

A portion of the area's 64,000 acres is closed off during the winter so the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife can feed elk herds and keep them out of orchards and farms in the Yakima Valley below.

During snowier winters, about 1,000 elk congregate within the fences, eating hay that’s often donated by Washington farmers. 

To keep out illegal shed hunters, the volunteer group Eyes in the Woods sets up cameras to catch people trespassing into the Oak Creek Wildlife Area.

Kyle Winton, who co-founded Eyes in the Woods 16 years ago, said they caught someone within half an hour of putting up a camera.

"We got a picture of our very first violator with three antlers on his back,” Winton said. “It was amazing how many people were violating the closure, and the animals were paying the toll.”

Winton said now only a handful of people violate the closure — most others are deterred by the cameras.

At Oak Creek, the group secure the cameras inside bear boxes, screw on antennae and strap the boxes to trees. This year the cameras caught about four people.

Watching For Trespassers

Several months after setting up their cameras, the group gathered at a cabin near Oak Creek. They were prepping for a stakeout to watch for illegal shed hunters trespassing into the wildlife area.

Winton said trespassers have been known to stockpile antlers all season. They sneak into Oak Creek the night before it re-opens -- hoping to carry out their stashed antlers in the morning by blending in with the legal shed hunters who waited for the gates to open.

“It’s kind of suspicious when you see somebody coming out with 10 or 12 antlers at 9 o’clock in the morning. That happens quite a bit. But guarantee they didn’t find those in a couple of hours,” Winton said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Kyra and Bobbi Cline, 11 and 7, hold up an elk antler they found. The Cline family hopes to make a chandelier out of antlers they've collected on opening day. ", "fid": "117723", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201505/elk_-_bobbi_and_sis.jpg", "attribution": "Credit EarthFix Photo/Courtney Flatt"}]]The group deployed to spots where they know people might sneak in. Under moonlit skies, Winton hiked up a bluff and perched behind a boulder. From there he could see most of the wildlife area.

After a long night, volunteers spotted two people trying to enter the other side of the wildlife area.

“Things are going smoothly over here," someone said over the radio. "Got a few people that went in early at the junction.”

At 6 a.m., the gates open for lines of cars, horses and hikers. They’ve been there since the night before, waiting to begin their search. By afternoon, several are gathered in a bustling parking lot, excited to show off their prizes.

Seven-year-old Bobbi Cline found an antler close to the gate. It’s almost as big as she.

“I’m holding an elk ear that we found. We found it in the bushes,” Bobbi said.

The Cline family is collecting antlers to someday turn into a chandelier. How soon they could finish that project may depend how successful wildlife officers and advocates are in stamping out illegal shed hunting.