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Shed Hunting Bans and Ecology
Shed hunting, or shed-antler hunting, is a fun and exciting way to get the whole family outdoors in search of the antlers that cervids drop each year. But in some parts of the United States, shed hunting is currently illegal. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) banned shed hunting from February 7th through April 30th 2023 on both public and private lands. DWR wildlife biologists have determined that particularly intense winter weather conditions are taking their toll on mule deer populations. Increased fawn mortality and even adult survival rates are among the repercussions of the heavy snow and dismal temperatures.
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According to J. Shirley, DWR Wildlife Resources Director, “In these types of conditions, big game animals are weakened and highly vulnerable to repeated human-caused disturbances” (via UDWR News). Shed hunting introduces humans into the habitats of already-stressed deer that struggle to find sufficient food and recover from hunting pressure and the demands of the rut. Staying out of the woods during the brutal tail end of winter may give wildlife the breathing room they need to survive.
The Utah DWR reports that their conservation officers will increase their presence for the duration of the shed hunting ban, and they may cite those who violate the restrictions or purposefully harass the animals. DWR adds that if the situation improves, they may end the ban sooner than the April 30th date. Similarly, per the Wyoming Fish and Game Department, shed and horn hunting is closed from January 1st to May 1st on some public lands. Regulations vary from state to state, so always check with your local wildlife department about antler collection policies.
So what drives people to collect antlers? For one, antlers fall in the places that their bearers frequent, so finding sheds can be a valuable part of the scouting process. Also, antlers are awesome—and there’s nothing quite like them in the animal kingdom. Members of the Cervidae family—-like North America’s deer, elk, caribou, and moose—do not sport keratinous horns (which grow from the base and remain on the animal throughout its life). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) explains that antlers are made of the fastest-growing animal tissue on Earth, growing from the ends and nourished by a soft coating of blood vessels called velvet. They begin as cartilage and grow up to an inch per day depending on the species, controlled by hormones and day length, until the velvet dies and gets rubbed away, FWS says.
Incredibly, antler-bearing animals regrow their crowns every year, and they’re often bigger and better every time! However, FWS adds that stress, genes, injury, and nutrition affect their formation. The antlers are mainly used to attract females and for territorial marking and displays.
In some cases, FWS writes that they’re used for defense against predators and fighting between competing males. But since antlers are biologically costly to the animals and quite heavy to be carried on their heads all the time, they are usually dropped in winter or the beginning of spring. After a brief healing process, the new antlers start growing and the cycle continues.
Antlers are also edible, to an extent. They’re used for medicinal purposes and can be processed into gelatin or used as dog chews. Rodents will gnaw antlers to keep their teeth in check, and many other animals—including predators like foxes, coyotes, and bears—will chow down on dropped antlers for their healthy mineral content. Some sources even report that deer eat them. Other uses for antlers include crafts, decor, and even making a little extra money — there’s a HUGE antler market — but always check regulations where you live, and ensure your antlers are sourced legally and ethically.
While a shed antler makes a beautiful prize, the next time you come across one, remember that it’s also a treasure for other creatures trying to make it out there. And if you’re itching for the antler ban to be lifted, know that quiet time in the woods is priceless for the deer.
Interested in shed hunting? Read more about it here!