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Survey shows rule changes to shed hunting may lead Wyomingites to hunt in areas they avoided in the past

A bunch of elk skulls and elk antlers in rows in a field.
Sam Maher
This elk deadhead and the pairs were featured at the Great Western Antler Rendezvous event in Alpine, WY.

Shed hunting in Wyoming will look different this year. The legislature passedregulations that will give residents a one week head start on some public lands, including popular antler gathering areas near Jackson Hole and Pinedale. Also, non-residents will now be required to purchase a conservation stamp to go shed hunting on designated lands.

Wyoming Public Radio’s Olivia Weitz spoke with UC Berkeley Ph.D. Candidate Sam Maher who is the lead researcher on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Antler study. Preliminary results suggest that the rule changes may lead Wyoming residents to look for antlers in places they haven’t looked in years and that out-of-state shed hunters may not be as profit driven as some may think.

Editor’s Note: This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Olivia Weitz: What did you find about who is the typical shed hunter? I'm wondering if you can paint a picture for us of who's going out and spending hours trying to find antlers in Wyoming.

Sam Maher: Basically, the people who are doing this overlap a lot with people who are also hunting big game. So, 90 percent of shed hunters are also hunters as well. It's this activity that you can do outside of the hunting season, without a permanent. You can do it in a lot of different areas that gets people outside. Demographically, what we saw on our survey results was that shed hunters are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. So, you know, more than 85 percent were male, and nearly everyone who took the survey identified as white as well.

OW: I'm curious, how many antlers are people finding where they're going shed hunting? And what exactly are they doing with the antlers after they find them?

SM: It’s highly variable how successful people are. So part of this is because some people are going to put a lot more effort into it over the season. And there's also a really big element of luck, as well. What we found was that the average number of antlers that were picked up by Wyoming residents was 20 per year, but out-of-state residents that were coming into Wyoming to shed hunt are picking up to 40 antlers a year. The reason for this is that a lot of the out-of-state shed hunters were coming and putting a lot more effort into going into feed grounds and areas where they're really high concentrations of antlers.

And so what do people do with them? There's a couple of different uses. Pet chews have become a really popular industry for antlers. Those people who are selling antlers are often selling them to buyers and dealers that are going to saw them up for pet chews. Some people are using them for their own dogs themselves. But we found that more than anything else, people were just keeping them for decor. What this tells us is that people were really motivated just by the process of finding them, by the hunt itself, and a little less so for the uses. There's also a cohort of antlers that go overseas and are used for medicinal purposes. In East Asia, South Korea is the biggest market. But that's a relatively small use compared to people who are just keeping them personally for decor and for pet chews.

OW:  Interesting, I had no idea there were so many different uses. That's fascinating. Shed hunting in Wyoming is gonna look different this year, the legislature passed a rule change where in areas of the state where there is a season, Wyomingites are going to get a week headstart over non state residents. And then those who are out-of-state will be required to pay to go shed hunting. I'm curious about what your survey says about how that rule change may impact the shed hunting season in Wyoming.

SM: This will be really interesting to see what happens because one thing we found in the survey was that Wyoming residents had overwhelmingly changed their shed hunting behaviors and strategies to account for the fact that there was a lot of competition coming from outside of the state. So 93 percent of people had either shed hunted less or changed the locations where they did it. So when you take out this population from out of the state, and they can't come in until seven days after the season opens for in-state residents, it means that you might see people who had previously been avoiding feed grounds or previously avoiding certain sites or not going out right when the closures are lifted, those people might be coming back in and kind of filling those gaps. So you could see just an expansion and activities by in-state residents.

OW: There's some people out there saying that these rule changes came from the perception that lots of greedy out-of-state people are coming into Wyoming and taking up all the antlers. In your survey, you looked at people's motivations for why the antler hunt, what did you find?

SM: I'm glad you're asking this because I think this was one of the most interesting results that we saw. It kind of pushes back against this narrative that out-of-state folks just want to collect and sell antlers and make a buck. What we found is there was actually no difference between in-state and out-of-state people to the degree to which they are selling antlers. So 50 percent of in-state and 50 percent of out-of-state folks had sold antlers in the past, but overall only 20 percent of antlers that people found were actually getting sold on. We found that profit seeking behavior actually played a much smaller role than we originally thought it would. And it didn't seem to be distinguishing Wyoming residents from out-of-state for folks.

OW: As the sport in Wyoming has gotten more popular. Has there been more conflicts between antler hunters in the state?

SM: We found that about 40 percent of people had either had a conflict or knew somebody who had a conflict either with another shed hunter, with law enforcement, or with a landowner. But this can't tell us anything about whether or not those rates have increased over the years. You hear about it more. But that could just be that because shed hunting is becoming more popular, we're talking about it more frequently. They have been enforcing some of the laws around antler collection, more than they had been in the past. They're known to track antlers to try to catch people who are picking them up outside of the season or in no-take areas. And then there's those people who have been prosecuted in a very public way. And so I think the hope there is that showing that yes, we are enforcing these rules is going to prevent those conflicts in the future.

But, I've also heard that there is a fair amount of conflict between shed hunters in areas where there are high concentrations of antlers. But there's a lot of people out there at the same time. You hear about people who will come into areas where antler removal is still illegal during the season closures and then they'll stockpile antlers and then come remove them after May 1 when you're legally allowed to take antlers out. And so people will come across the stockpiles and be like, ‘Hey, something's not right here.’ And I've heard stories about armed confrontations over this, but that at this point is just hearsay.

OW: Looking back at the other results it seems like both Wyomingits and non residents have shared similar motivations for doing it. They liked spending time outdoors; they like spending time with family. Can you just talk about what sort of similarities out-of -state and in-state shed hunters had?

SM: So it seemed that people really just like that shed hunting takes them outside, it gives them a mission, it brings them to places they might not go normally. And it's a way of interacting with the environment that's a little more active than if you just went hiking or something. And then there's, of course, the thrill and the excitement of being able to find something as well. This is a way people, you know, they build communities around it, they do it with their children, they do it with their friends, they spend time in areas that they feel connected to. The benefits of shed hunting are really similar to the benefits of really any outdoor recreational activity. And it just has the fun element of you might be able to find something super cool that no one else has.

OW: This is part one of a two year survey. These are the preliminary results of your study. You're going to give the survey out again this year, the rule change goes into effect in May. I'm just curious what you anticipate finding this year as the rule change goes into effect.

SM: Right now we're in the stages of trying to design a couple more questions to get at how people change their behavior as a result of the new laws. One of the things we're going to ask too, is about enforcement. One of the big challenges of this is going to be enforcing the restrictions on out-of-state residents, especially during that seven day head start period. So we're going to ask people basically like have you encountered a warden in the field? What have you seen? I know, that's been one of the challenges that the agencies have said that is going to be difficult for them. We're interested again, if we're going to see Wyoming residents coming out of the woodwork, people who hadn't been shed hunting in the last couple of years because of the craziness associated with it. Are we going to see them coming to big events like the Jackson opening? Or are we going to see, you know, a pairing down of you know, 1,000 people at the Jackson shed hunting opener to like, you know, 250 next year?

Researchers will be surveying shed hunters again this season for year two of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem antler study. The project is in collaboration with partners at the University of Wyoming and The Buffalo Bill Center of the West. 

Olivia Weitz is based at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. She covers Yellowstone National Park, wildlife, and arts and culture throughout the region. Olivia’s work has aired on NPR and member stations across the Mountain West. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom story workshop. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, cooking, and going to festivals that celebrate folk art and music.

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