Utah wildlife officials say they won’t renew controversial ban on antler gathering

Division of Wildlife Resources will consider smaller, more targeted closures to better protect wintering big game, while still letting outdoor activity grow in popularity.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Fife) Shed elk antlers gathered in southern Utah are leaned against a tree. Utah wildlife officials said Thursday they do not expect to impose further blanket bans on winter-time antler gathering, following last winter’s statewide ban.

In a change of course, Utah wildlife officials said Thursday they do not expect to impose further blanket bans on winter-time antler gathering, an outdoor activity that is soaring in popularity.

The Division of Wildlife Resources has been concerned that increasing numbers of antler hunters could multiply the stresses faced by wintering mule deer, elk and moose, prompting a controversial closure last year that upset many enthusiasts and may have pushed some into Nevada.

When deep snows forced emergency deer feeding last winter, then-director Greg Sheehan shut down the entire state to antler gathering prior to April 1, when the arrival of spring allows big game to move to higher terrain. Sheehan cautioned that the restriction could become permanent, but at Thursday’s Wildlife Board meeting, officials said smaller, more “surgical” closures would be a better way to balance the needs of big game and a popular recreational activity.

“There is a financial market [for shed elk antlers], but it’s an activity that gets families out and kids interested in wildlife before they are old enough to hunt,” DWR big game coordinator Covey Jones told the board. “We want people to participate in this activity, but we want them to do it ethically, without adding more stress. We are not looking to punish guys out there trying to enjoy the outdoors.”

He favors targeted closures when and where conditions warrant, instead of the blanket ban imposed last winter and many feared would become permanent.

“Rights were being stepped on,” said Paul Fife, a Cedar City resident who has gathered antlers for 30 years. Shed hunting “gets kids off the couch and helps correct the obesity problem. It’s not about the money. This is for the sheer enjoyment of it.”

Fife said he would accept targeted closures as long they also applied to hunters of cougar, cow elk and turkey and others who venture into winter range at the same time as shed hunters.

“It’s the parity I’m looking for here,” Fife said. “You need to make it fair and a consistent ban across the board for everybody.”

Mule deer begin dropping their bony headgear in February, while elk lose theirs a little later. Those who intend to gather these antlers between Jan. 31 and April 15 must complete an online course every year and carry proof of certification when in the field. The course explains the stresses endured by big game, winter survival rates and the rules for gathering antlers. Since the program’s launch in 2012, the number of people certifying each year has nearly doubled to 19,000.

Last winter’s severe conditions, which more than doubled mortality rates, brought the antler issue to the fore. Deep snow and harsh weather killed 90 percent of the fawns in many northwestern districts, according to Jones. In addition, one-fourth of the adults failed to survive winter in Summit, Rich, Cache and Box Elder counties.

After the ban was enacted, conservation officers wrote 125 citations to people gathering antlers prior to April 1.

Complicating the antler-gathering picture in Utah are various policies in neighboring states.

Idaho and Nevada do not regulate antler gathering at all, while Wyoming bans winter-time gathering west of the Continental Division on public lands, according to Utah DWR’s wildlife section chief Justin Shannon. Colorado bans it in the Gunnison Basin and is considering expanding that to public land west of Interstate 25.