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Debating racks and ruin in the wilds of Wyoming

The state considers a winter ban on antler gathering as humans get overly aggressive.

November 18, 2009|DeeDee Correll | Correll writes for The Times.

DENVER — As a boy, Terry Reach used to traipse the land around his Pinedale, Wyo., home, searching for antlers shed by deer and elk.

It was a solitary pastime; he never saw anyone else, and he always found plenty of antlers, which he'd drag home and pile in the yard.

But now, each winter, western Wyoming is thick with people intent on snatching up as many antlers as they can find. They follow the bucks, waiting for them to shed their impressive headgear. Sometimes people chase the animals on all-terrain vehicles or snowmobiles, believing the exertion will force them to drop their antlers.

"They run the wildlife off," said Reach, 53.

Such tactics, say Wyoming officials, can be destructive for deer and elk struggling to survive the lean winter months. Already starving, they can use up their reserves pushing through deep snow to avoid humans.

Now Wyoming is considering a ban on the popular activity from January through April, the months when the herds are most vulnerable.

"What it boils down to is harassment of wildlife at a real critical time for them to survive," said Mark Gocke, a spokesman for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. "We want to afford them as much protection as we can."

The harassment of wildlife is a huge problem, said Walt Gasson, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, which endorses the ban.

But some Wyomingites have taken umbrage at the proposal, which would apply to collecting antlers on public lands west of the Continental Divide. The state Game and Fish Commission will consider the issue at a meeting this week.

"Leave it alone. Leave it like it is," said Mary Stager, 70, of Big Piney, who has hunted antlers on horseback for decades. Though she disapproves of those who harm the animals, she shares the view that the state's approach will penalize those who will abide by the law while unethical hunters will take all the antlers.

"The only people who won't hunt are people who won't violate the law anyway," Reach predicted. (Though antler aficionados often use "hunt" and "hunting" to describe what they do, hobbyists don't kill the animals; they just pick up fallen horns.)

For residents like Reach and Stager, antler hunting is a way to earn extra income by selling the horns to furniture makers. Many of the antlers also end up in Asia, where they are considered an aphrodisiac.

Prices depend on size and quality, but elk antlers generally go for $5 a pound, and those from deer fetch $5 to $7, said Don Schaufler, a Montana antler dealer who buys the horns from several Western states, including Wyoming.

As collecting them has grown lucrative, it's also grown more competitive, Gocke said. "And ethics go out the window. I don't see that trend changing, at least not for the better," he said.

Neighboring states have grappled with the same issue in recent years.

In Colorado, wildlife officials found so many antler hunters disturbing herds near the western town of Gunnison two years ago that they enacted restrictions, banning the activity from Jan. 1 to March 14. The ban has helped ease the problem, said Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Tyler Baskfield.

Utah tried a similar -- and short-lived -- approach in the northern part of the state, then switched last year to a strategy of permitting antler hunting year-round but requiring participants to take an online course aimed at educating them about the effects of their behavior.

A number of hunters took the course this year, but it could be hard to gauge the success of the program because many factors affect the wildlife population, said Anis Aoude, big-game program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

In Wyoming, some suspect that other states' bans have contributed to problems there.

"It did cause a bunch of people to come up to Wyoming," said Robert Wharff, executive director of Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, an advocacy group that supports the proposed ban. Though its members dislike the prospect of more regulation, they also object to practices that can reduce herds, Wharff said. "If we want the resource out there for us to hunt, we have to protect it."

Others remain adamantly opposed, saying the state ought to enforce existing laws prohibiting the use of motor vehicles in certain areas while still allowing hunters on foot.

"The ATV and snow machine are the biggest threat to wildlife. It's not the people walking in," Reach said. State officials disagree, saying those on foot also are disruptive.

Gocke said the proposed measure has the support of many antler hunters who think it will level the playing field.

"They don't feel good about having to go out and harass these animals, but they feel they have to or they won't get any antlers," he said. "They're asking us to make it fair for everybody."

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