DWR shuts down antler gathering to protect Utah’s big game

Harsh winter and deep snow is great for water supplies, but stresses deer and elk.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Antlers recovered during poaching investigations are auctioned off by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources at the Lee Kay Public Shooting Range in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 25, 2022. Citing harsh weather conditions that stress big game, DWR has closed the entire state to antler gathering until May 1.

Less than a week after opening Utah’s antler-gathering season, wildlife officials temporarily banned the popular activity Tuesday, citing the severe winter which has stressed big game herds.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, or DWR, has been monitoring snowpack and temperatures, as well as the condition of the state’s mule deer. Since before the onset of winter, biologists have been recording body fat levels in deer and fawn weights and monitoring animals’ movements with GPS collars.

Monitoring data show that the extreme cold and snowpack across the state are affecting mule deer fawn survival rates and are expected to increase adult deer mortality over the winter.

“In these types of conditions, big game animals are weakened and highly vulnerable to repeated human-caused disturbances,” said DWR Director Justin Shirley. “The unnecessary expenditure of energy and stress associated with disturbance — like being repeatedly followed by someone gathering shed antlers — may significantly decrease the survival rates of big game animals, particularly deer, this winter.”

Accordingly, Shirley has decided to close both public and private land to antler collecting through the end of April, although the closure may be lifted sooner if conditions allow.

After three straight winters of meager snow, Utah has hit the precipitation jackpot this year and is seeing snowpacks holding twice as much water as normal. What is a boon for water supplies is hard on big game that struggles to find food under heavy snow cover.

“Closing the shed antler and horn gathering season will minimize a major source of disturbance in the areas and during the time periods when big game animals are the most exposed and vulnerable,” Shirley said. “Shed antler gathering is not the only winter activity with the potential to disturb wintering wildlife. We encourage everyone to be aware of wildlife during this vulnerable period and do their best to not disturb them.”

Every winter, people venture out in search of antlers, which deer and elk shed in February and early March. Gatherers must complete an online course and carry a certificate in the field.

The last time officials halted antler gathering was in 2017, upsetting many people who felt the ban would not do much to protect deer yet infringe on residents’ liberty to access public land, or even their own private land.

After the 2017 closure, DWR announced it would not resort to blanket bans in the future. The idea was to rely on targeted closures to protect wintering big game, but DWR decided a statewide ban was appropriate this year.

Officials asked for the public’s patience in observing the latest ban.

“We know shed hunting is a popular pastime for many families in Utah, and we appreciate everyone’s understanding and cooperation in waiting to go gather antlers until after April 30,” said Dax Mangus, DWR’s big game coordinator. “These efforts will help reduce stress on Utah’s big game animals and increase their chances of surviving the winter.”

The agency will increase patrols this winter to enforce the ban and may issue citations.