Charles Kirkham, who operates Mystic Lady Antler Art on U.S. Highway 14-16-20 west of Cody, said he doesn’t see an alarming trend of unsavory horn hunters, and most people are becoming more conscientious. And, if unscrupulous hunters are harming wildlife, ethical hunters will reprimand them.
“Everybody that likes to do it is policing each other,” Kirkham said.
Antler hunters are displacing big game into poorer winter range, said Chris Queen, Powell game warden.
“I’ve watched it occur on a number of occasions in the last couple of months,” he said.
“We have been hearing complaints from numerous people about this,” said Joe Alexander, Shoshone National Forest supervisor.
Metzler suggests closing northwest Wyoming from Jan. 1 to April 15 to protect big game for future generations.
“It’s very much needed that we leave them alone,” he said.
The premise has validity, said Mike Healy, District 5 commissioner for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department Commission. If it does become a problem, the commission will act, he said.
“We’re all ears. If the issue develops, we’ll respond to it,” Healy said.
In 2010, an antler season was set in southwest Wyoming from April 30 to Jan. 1 to protect wintering big game.
Other states such as Utah and Idaho are setting antler seasons, and Metzler said he fears unethical out-of-state hunters stymied by seasons in their own areas will invade Wyoming for the early pickings.
Some don’t see beauty while savoring the wonders of Wyoming or its wildlife. It is all about profit, not protecting a renewable resource. “The interest seems to be in the antler,” Metzler said, “not the animal.”
Big game must contend with harsh winters, drought and big predators such as bears and wolves, but the biggest threat walks on two legs. Humans hunt big game in the fall, then return to the field in the spring to grab antlers. “We’re one of the biggest predators,” Metzler said.
Some overzealous hunters will return to the same range and push big game from locations where the best forage and safety from carnivores exists. A lot of people are worried about predators taking wildlife, Alexander said.
“By pressuring them on their winter range, we’re not doing them any favors,” he said.
Game and Fish can fine people for harassing wildlife, particularly with ATVs or dogs, Kirkham said. A statute prohibits the harassment of wildlife using motorized vehicle such as snowmobiles, ATVs, pickup trucks and aircraft.
“That’s all there is,” Queen said.
Rising price of antlers
As a youngster, Metzler hunted the Pagoda Creek drainage west of Cody for sheds. Cabins along the road leading to the trailhead used antlers to line flower beds. Then the price of antlers grew, and those antlers adorning yards on Pagoda were stolen, Metzler said.
Although he did not want the price of antlers published, Kirkham said the price has increased in the last two years.
“It’s as high as it’s ever been,” he said.
There is a market for antler art, such as chandeliers, and now antlers are cut up to provide chew toys for dogs. When tourists stop by Kirkham’s store, he often gives their canines a little chunk of antler to gnaw, he said.
Now, antler hunters use social media to inform their friends of where and when big bulls and bucks drop their antlers, and are heading to the hills in droves. People are using ATVs and snowmobiles to beat their competition.
“It’s just not the same as it was 20 years ago,” Metzler said.
People live in the area for the outdoor recreation, wildlife, hunting and outfitting opportunities. The Shoshone National Forest provides tremendous wintering range, and forest personnel invested a lot of time planning to protect those ranges and the resources like trails. Preseason hunters’ horses tear up trails, and ATVs venture off trail to damage terrain not authorized for vehicles, Alexander said.
Metzler said he does not wish to see people banned from national forests or other public lands; he just wants people to leave big game in peace when the animals are most vulnerable.
“I’m not really in favor of (the proposed season restriction), but it is needed,” Metzler said.
“We don’t want the state setting seasons or putting on licenses,” Kirkham said.
Game and Fish has no wish to mandate antler hunting licenses. “We’re not interested in making a buck off shed antlers,” Queen said.
But the rub is enforcement. Catching malefactors is difficult. And, if the commission does pass regulations to initiate a season, it could be criticized for not enforcing the season, Healy said.
He said he believes a majority of antler hunters are ethical. But, if seasons are set, the few bad apples will sneak into closed areas and cache their ill-gotten sheds to haul out when the season opens, while conscientious hunters who could truly use the money are left high and dry, Kirkham said.
If early hunters chase big game into deep snow, the sheds will be lost in the snow. “They’re only cutting their own throats,” Kirkham said.
This year, big bull elk are occupying lower ground due to the deep snow, but they are laying low and hard to find. A lot of elk and deer winter on ranches and private property, Kirkham said.
Antler hunters must obtain landowner permission to hunt on private land, according to the Game and Fish.
Big game animals are eating their forage, so those landowners or their employees may deem the antlers theirs and a supplemental source of income, Kirkham said.