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Another day in the woods: looking for shed antlers
By Ron Day, law enforcement branch chief, Arizona Game and Fish Department
It’s February, so what’s a hunter to do? There are javelina, but not everyone likes hunting javelina. Ducks are everywhere, but the season is closed. Quail season has closed, too. Hunting season is winding down, and those who fish are dreaming of warmer weather and water. Having said all of this, there are still ways to enjoy being in the great outdoors. One of my favorite late-winter activities is picking up shed antlers.
The antler growth cycle
The annual antler growth cycle of deer and elk is one of nature’s amazing events. In the late winter or early spring a new antler begins to grow from the pedestal, from which the previous year’s antler recently fell off. The antlers grow until midsummer or early fall. During this time the antler is a live bone, covered with velvet. Once antler growth stops, the bull or buck starts to rub the velvet off of the now-dead antler. This is the time of year when it really stinks to be an 8-foot pine tree in the middle of a little opening. After the antlers are rubbed, they remain unchanged until they once again fall off in late winter or early spring, and the cycle starts over.
The timing of this cycle depends on the species (deer or elk), and the age and maturity of the animal. For example, a big bull elk will usually drop its antlers by the end of February. Bigger antlers take longer to grow and, as such, necessitate dropping the previous year’s antlers earlier. By comparison, younger bulls are often seen with the previous year’s antlers as late as April or early May.
Where do you look for an antler?
The answer is actually easy. It’s where the bulls or bucks are during the time of year when their antlers fall off. It truly depends on the dynamics of the deer or elk herd in the area where you plan to look. In most parts of the state, elk winter in a different area than where they spend the summer. Since antler drop occurs in the late winter, the place to start looking is winter range.
Typical elk winter range will find the bulls feeding on some combination of cliffrose, mountain mahogany, sage, or maybe the first green grass of the spring. They are probably not traveling very far between bedding and feeding areas unless they have to travel for water. All these factors come into play when trying to find an antler. Remember, you are not trying to find a bull elk; you’re trying to find where they were during that six- to eight-week period when most of them dropped an antler.
As with all types of hunting, knowing the specific area where bulls like to feed, water and bed will help immensely in finding an antler or two. An elk’s life is not terribly complicated during this time of year: eat, sleep and drink, that’s all they’re doing.
How do you look for an antler?
I pick an area where I can get away from people and spend my day hiking where bulls have wintered. That may sound easy, but unless you have tried it, you don’t know how truly competitive antler hunting has become. It is rare to spend a day anywhere and not find a boot print from another antler hunter.
I spend a lot of time looking where they are feeding. It makes sense to assume that this is where most of the antlers are going to fall off. You should also look in bedding grounds. Probably one-third of the antlers I pick up are in or right next to a bed. The last place worth some of your time is along major trails used by bulls between where they feed and bed. Pay attention to fences, as many antlers fall off when a bull jumps a fence.
The legalities of picking up an antler
What are the legalities of picking up an elk or deer antler? Naturally, shed antlers are lawful to possess. However, the legality of possessing antlers, skulls or other parts from animals that have died is more complicated. In a nutshell, if the animal died from an unnatural cause, such as wounding during the hunting season or vehicle impact, it may not be lawfully possessed. Parts from wildlife that die from natural causes, such as predation, disease, drowning, or lightning may be lawfully possessed. You may not make this determination on your own. If you find an animal that you wish to keep a part of, you must contact the Arizona Game and Fish Department so “cause of death” can be properly determined. For more information, see the article below on the legalities of picking up wildlife parts.
Other legal issues to consider are closures and access. A land management agency, such as the USDA Forest Service or U.S. Bureau of Land Management, may have closed an area to vehicle traffic, either for wildlife reasons or due to winter conditions. In most of these cases, you may usually access the area on foot but may not be allowed to drive a vehicle, including an OHV, into the area. Make sure you check the current local conditions of your destination.
What you do with the antlers you find is up to you. The majority of the antlers are sold to local antler buyers, who either resell them or make them into lamps, lights and chandeliers. They are often resold to buyers who ship them overseas. Whatever you do with yours, remember, the antler is just a bonus, the real reward is spending another great day in the woods.