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Shed hunting

It’s that time of the year again–‘horn hunting’ season.  People do it for fun and for profit.  These ‘hunters’ are seeking deer, elk, and even moose sheds, which are not really ‘horns’ at all.  Horns are found in the bovine family, are a two-part structure, and are worn for the life of the animal.  The exception being the Pronghorn, which does shed them every year.  Horns are a two-part structure, with an interior of bone and a sheath of a type of hair follicle material, akin to your fingernails. So animals like sheep, bison, or cattle have horns for life.

Bison have horns
Bison have horns

Antlers, on the other hand, are also true bone but are shed each year and then regrown.  As the male adult animal ages, the antler gets bigger and wider.

Deer with emerging antlers--in velvet
Deer with emerging antlers–in velvet

When I first arrived in Wyoming, I knew the difference between antlers and horns and couldn’t figure out why everyone called this amusement ‘horn hunting’.  It was just wrong.  People who know the difference, like scientists, will usually refer to it as ‘shed hunting’.  But I’ve come to accept it and I suppose the h-h sound was adopted because it just slides off your tongue better.

Antlers are becoming big business and that’s why people go after them.  I personally saw a small 6 point elk antler in a California window with a $250 price tag.  Antlers are cut up and sold for dog chews, buttons, door handles,key chains, made into furniture, used as table centerpieces, or whatever art pieces you can think of.  But what’s really driving the market is the Asian desire for aphrodisiacs.  Although I think Viagra is cheaper and actually effective, the myth in the Far East is that antlers, ground up into a powder, will make a man virile.  I suppose people will believe anything as well as pay for it.


This deer has a dropped tine, probably a genetic anomaly


Last year I took all the old, broken, antlers that had been lying around my property when I purchased it.  I’d thrown them into a pile in the yard.  They were white and almost powdery from age, but a small loaded pick-up truck fetched over $250! New, browner, bigger antlers can get up to $10 pound.

So far this season, I’ve found about 10 deer antlers.  I don’t ‘hunt’ them.  I prefer to be gifted–‘shed gifting’.  I’m hiking around and there is a ‘present ‘ on the ground of a nice antler.  It’s a nice surprise.  And sometimes I leave them.  I enjoy making things out of antlers, but most of the people I’ve talked to say they just throw them in their garage, and now have a garage full of them.

Antlers provide calcium for small critters like mice, porcupines, and even coyotes will chew on them.  People ‘hunting’ them in early spring can ‘push’ the elk and deer at a critical time when they are still stressed from the winter and don’t yet have the benefits of a full green-up.  Sometimes I wonder if all this antler collecting isn’t robbing some of the smaller animals of valuable nutrients, as well as what shed antlers put back into the soil.

Just a last note.  If you are out shed hunting, carry your bear spray as grizzlies are out now.  Here is a great article touting the efficacy of bear spray vs. guns.   Bear spray had a 92% efficacy with the other 7% being minor, non-hospitalized injuries and all bears lived.  Guns on the other hand had only a 67% efficacy with a 100% fatality for the bear.

And one last note:  it is highly illegal to pick up and take home sheds from Yellowstone National Park.  You will be fined and probably barred for life from the Park if you attempt to take antlers home.


False spring or Climate Change?

Wow, its’ in the 50’s and 60’s for days now…in early March.  ‘Spring’ is the time we should begin getting our wet snows that deliver our moisture for the year.   Early and/or rapid spring run-off from the high country spells flooding and erosion.  All the grizzly bear signs warn ‘Grizzly bear season April-October.  Take precautions’ , but grizzly bears are being sighted already.

If you look at thirty years of data on the ‘green-up’ period in the high country, it is getting more compressed and earlier.  Warm temperatures like these suggest the trend is only going to continue.  If the grasses in the high country green up earlier and brown sooner, the elk in my valley that travel back to the Lamar to calf will once again have limited nutrition, all at a time when they need it the most to nurse their young.  This has been one of the major factors in their low calf-cow ratios

Elk herd in valley on a warm day


This fall I had an opportunity to go on a grizzly tracking adventure with Gregg Treinish of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.  On that wonderful trip I met Louisa Wilcox of the Montana NRDC.  I asked her about a premier Whitebark pine study that NRDC sponsored.  What she told me was eye opening.  The research botanist said as global warming progresses, we will see Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii) in the mountains here.  Gambel Oak is the predominant oak of the Southwest United States.  I saw it growing in the canyons around Mesa Verde.

But for today, this week has been a nice break from winter.  We got a foot of snow just a week before these temps.  Here’s some of what we’re now missing, taken last week.

Wolf tracks with snow blown in

Bull Moose
Shows that he recently lost his antlers
Grouse tracks
Moose mom and male calf

More elk calves and a lesson in Life and Death

“…that feeling in your stomach of “I don’t want this to be happening.” You try to escape it in some way, but if somehow you could stay present and touch the rawness of the experience, you can really learn something.”  Pema Chodron

Yesterday, this morning, and today were all one large event, the event that is Life.

In my post yesterday, I wrote about the dead elk calf.  This morning the mama spent a long time bugling for her calf behind my house on the top of the rise…a mournful sound of a mother calling desperately for her newborn calf.  I went outside and watched her.   I felt tremendous sadness for her.  I knew she didn’t know what happened to her calf, just that it was gone.

It reminded me of a time two years ago in the spring in the Beartooths.  A car hit and killed a cub of the year.  The grizzly mom spent a week roaming and calling for her cub.

There is nothing so sad in the animal world as that sound–a mother calling for her baby that is dead.  But I felt it was important for me to allow myself to feel this elk mother’s cries fully, and not push my own feelings away, even though it was difficult.

I stayed with her and listened.  And those bugles were low, guttural; not the high pitched sounds you hear in the fall from the elk.  Her cries came from a deep and ancient place, not unlike the cries of humans mourning intensely.

Today was the first really warm, beautiful day.  I decided to go up to a favorite spot, a place that overlooks a deep canyon, and have lunch there. (Unfortunately, I took my cheap camera) Its about a 2 1/2 mile hike up to the top of this ridge-line.  You pass through a forest until you top out at some high meadows.  At the end of the meadows are sheer cliff drop-offs.

View from afar of the spot where elk is. This is the meadow and cliff

As soon as I broke through the trees and began crossing the meadow to the cliff edges, I spied a lone elk.  She seemed a bit nervous at my presence (not unusual) but then I saw something else.  A calf lay nearby.  A wet calf.  She had just given birth and probably just finished licking the calf clean of the afterbirth.  I made a large circle and hid behind some rocks out of the wind.

Mom had taken off and left her baby there, probably hoping that I’d be more interested in following her and so not find her newborn.  I watched that little guy for about an hour.  Within about 10 minutes, he tried to stand up.  He struggled unsuccessfully with his weak legs.  Exhausted, he spent another 10 minutes resting.  But soon he tried again.  This time, although he still couldn’t stand up easily, he was getting stronger.

Keep trying...
First attempt to stand

I had a good feeling about this mom and her choice of a birthplace.  High up, the only entrance was on one side.  She placed the calf near a rock that had similar coloring as the calf.  And not too far beyond the calf was the cliff, where no predator could come from.  On my hike up through the trees, I saw no grizzly sign.  Grizzly sign was on the other side of the canyon down below near the creek.  If this calf makes it past a few weeks, he’ll be too fast for the bears.  But then he’ll still have to contend with wolves, who do frequent the area.

Cliff edge near where calf lies

If he makes it through a month or so, when the snows melt, his mom will probably take him up to the Absaroka Divide and head to the Lamar.  He’ll have a good year this year, more similar to what his ancestors used to experience before the long drought, because the grasses will stay greener for longer.  Then next January I might see him again when he migrates back down here for the winter.  He’ll be taller but still a youngster and still vulnerable to the wolves and the deep winter snows.  But he might just be one of the tougher ones, the lucky ones, and live into his adulthood.  Live to mate and make more elk and not be caught by a hunter’s bullet.   I surely hope so.