Shed Antlers were more scattered opening day of shed hunting season, likely due to a mild winter
Elk and deer antler hunting season opened last Sunday, May 1, in parts of Wyoming, and it looked different this year, as the past two winters have been mild.
In much of the western and southern parts of the state, it is illegal to pick up antlers from January 1 to May 1 at 6 a.m.
At the crack of dawn on May 1, I was in the saddle, riding my buckskin mare.
I joined my mom and boyfriend to look for antler sheds somewhere in the Red Desert. It felt like we were in a sea of sagebrush and that the odds of finding anything were stacked against us.
But, two hours into it, my mom, Maike Tan, found an elk shed. She is five-foot two-inches, and it was almost as tall as she is.
"Well, I just literally stumbled on it," she said. "I can't believe it - I've never found one like this."
We actually chose to hunt antlers in this spot because there was less snow this year, so there was more space for elk to roam.
Normally, it is a safe bet to hunt for antlers near elk feedgrounds. Elk shed their horns from late February to April and during a big winter elk are still being fed during that time. But, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department stopped feeding earlier the past two years due to the mild winter.
"On mild winters mule deer and elk both seem to scatter out more and they're not concentrated in specific areas as much as they are during a severe winter," John Lund, Pinedale regional Game and Fish wildlife supervisor, said. "So there were not piles of, you know, antlers right on the immediate area of the feed grounds in some cases."
That seemed to be the consensus amongst hunters - horns were more scattered this year. Less snow means the big game has more area to roam and shed their horns.
"When there's lots of snow, we know exactly where they're going to be," Jason House, antler hunter and buyer in Pinedale, said.
He only found one antler this year near one of the feedgrounds. House said a lot of hunters he spoke with did not find antlers this year, and those who did typically found them in higher elevations.
Three days in, House already bought a lot of people's antlers.
Most afternoons, he will set up his truck and trailer in town with a sign that reads 'Antlers Wanted.'
His truck bed was already full and his trailer half-full - tightly packed with giant, brown elk and deer antlers.
"There's close to $70,000 in here. Just what's in here," House said. "This was a four day run throughout Wyoming."
House pays $18 a pound for brown elk antlers - those are antlers that are not faded by the sun yet. They were about $15 a pound last year. For the remainder of the year, he will drive 3,000 miles every two weeks to buy antlers from people across the Rocky Mountains, midwest and south.
House either resells them to the dog chew industry or makes them into artwork that he later sells.
A local antler hunter, Nate Olsen, pulled up with a truck bed of antlers to sell House.
Olsen was pretty tight lipped about his hunt this year. He said that is because there are so many people from all over the country who come out to hunt on opening day now. Olsen said at one point he used to be able to find antlers throughout the summer.
The future of the hunt
Olsen said the mild winter did change the hunt this year - antlers were more scattered.
"They were a lot further from their winter grounds I'd say when they dropped," he said. "If they don't have to come all the way down, they won't."
That could be the future of antler hunting.
Much of western and northwest Wyoming remains in 'extreme drought' conditions, according to the Water Resources Data System and State Climate Office.
Ellen Aikens did her PhD research on Wyoming's big game and their migratory habits. She said during drought years, animals will migrate quicker.
"So, even if the timing of migration is not starting earlier, they're foraging less along that migration route," Aikens said. "And so they might finish their migration sooner and get up to higher elevation, summer ranges or stopover sites more quickly,
Likely meaning that warmer weather means big game - including their antlers - will be at higher elevations earlier in the year.