Paul Fife takes March off every year to roam Utah in search of antlers shed by big game over winter. This is when bull elk begin dropping their bony headgear, offering outdoor enthusiasts a chance for a little treasure hunting during the off-season.
"I enjoy it because it gets me outside and get exercise, and yes I make a buck off it," said Fife, a Postal Service worker based in Cedar City. "The competition for these darn things is fierce. It's almost like they are magical things left in the mountains for whoever wants to claim them."
But this winter's heavy snow in the northern parts of the state have prompted the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to ban antler gathering until April 1 — and not just the north, but the entire state — and that has southern Utah antler hunters such as Fife crying foul.
"They can't take away your right to be out in the mountains," Fife said. "This is my pursuit of happiness, and they say I can do it only when it gets hot out and I have to avoid rattle snakes."
Wildlife officials say they are only trying to protect a cherished resource.
DWR director Greg Sheehan initially closed 11 northern Utah counties. But earlier this month he made the order statewide out of concern that antler hunters could flood winter range in southern Utah, adding avoidable stresses to big-game herds.
Sixteen people have thus far been cited for violating the closure as of last week, DWR officials said.
DWR Captain Mitch Lane says several were cited for unlawful taking of protected wildlife, antlers and horns in this instance, and their trophies were seized. Unlawful taking is a misdemeanor punishable by fines up to $1,000.
Enforcing the closure has been "a top priority," the agency said.
More than 18,000 people completed the free on-line registration necessary for collecting antlers in Utah between Feb. 1 and April 15.
Limiting DWR's ban to northern counties, Sheehan said, could double or triple the numbers of collectors flooding into southern Utah.
Elk and mule deer are most likely to succumb in February and March and DWR wants to minimize any additional pressures on these animals as Utah emerges from its toughest winter since 2011. This winter has been so hard on deer in northern Utah that Sheehan has asked the Legislature for $800,000 to pay for emergency feed operations, erect fencing to keep big game off ranchers' hay and compensate growers for losses to these hungry animals.
By this time of year, elks and deer have shed their fat stores and are often losing muscle mass to survive.
"The worst condition is now," Sheehan said. "By even walking up there you are making those animals walk away. Any one time might not affect the animal, but repetitive pressure will have an impact."
The Utah Wildlife Board is considering permanently closing the state to antler gathering over winter.
"These antlers aren't going to melt," Sheehan said. "They will still be there in April."
But critics such as Fife called the closure "state overreach."
"Southern Utah has nothing to do with the harsh winter," said Fife, a big game hunter who has collected antlers for 25 years. He said he suspects the closures are an initial step toward outlawing collection permanently.
Utah's ban, he said, will encourage collectors to hide antlers for retrieval come spring or push them into neighboring states that haven't shut down gathering — a concern shared by Nevada wildlife officials.
Utah's move has lent urgency to Nevada's outreach programs reminding "antler hunters to back off the animals," said Ed Lyngar, spokesman Nevada Department of Wildlife's law enforcement division. "We want people to get outdoors and enjoy themselves, but we don't want them stressing the animals."
Nevada officials proposed rules on antler gathering years ago, but at this stage they lack authority to restrict this activity.
While deer antlers don't fetch much, an elk antler can sell for between $150 to $200, said Fife, who can earn more collecting antlers in a few weeks than for the same amount of time handling mail for a pay check. A trophy set of 400-inchers would be a prize worth $2,000.
Fife noted that since DWR has not restricted winter hunts that can also disturb elk and deer herds, particularly "harvest-objective" hunts for cougar which often involve packs of braying dogs that can prompt other animals to flee in every direction.
Fife figures DWR is singling out antler hunting because it does not generate revenue, while a cow elk and cougar tags require a fee.
But Sheehan believes antler collectors pose a bigger risk simply by their sheer numbers. "There aren't that many houndsmen out there," he said.
"This winter in particular is a problem where the animals are more concentrated in wintering areas," said Sheehan. "We don't need potentially thousands of people looking for antlers."