Shed Hunting
Travis Smola

Has Shed Hunting Gotten TOO Popular? Examining the Ethics of Antler Hunting

Has shed hunting gotten too popular for its own good?

Finding shed antlers is quickly becoming one of the most popular late winter and early spring activities to participate in each year. Whether you are searching for whitetail, mule deer, elk, or moose antlers, some big game hunters look forward to antler hunting as much as the animals themselves.

It didn't used to be this way. Only twenty to thirty years ago, hunting the cast antlers of male deer was very much a niche activity that was mostly participated in by the most die-hard of bowhunters. These days, it's a popular family outdoor activity that thousands participate in ever year.

So, how did this become such a popular post deer hunting season activity? And are there any downsides to more people searching all the thickets and south-facing slopes at this time of year? Let's look at it a little more in-depth.

How did shed hunting get so popular?

Shed Hunting

Getty Images: moose henderson

I started shed hunting before I even entered high school back in mid-1990s. At that time, you might see the occasional article full of shed hunting tips in a popular magazine, but they were rare. I didn't see or hear of many people actively going out to search for shed antlers. Most of the hunters I knew who did find sheds did so by accident while out and about maintaining their property or working their food plots in the spring. Very few called themselves a "shed hunter" in the offseason.

It seems like the popularity of shed hunting started to take off with the rise in popularity of hunting TV shows and big buck magazines. More hunters started to realize seeking out dropped antlers was a great method of scouting. Before trail cameras became a popular way of monitoring deer, many hunters monitored the deer on private land by glassing and finding their antlers. A shed antlers is proof a target buck has survived the season. However, I think the focus on bigger antlers was only partially to blame for the increase in popularity.

In truth, one of the bigger reasons shed hunting has gotten so popular is probably for monetary reasons. Naturally shed antlers are one of the few pieces of wildlife that can legally be bought and sold no matter where you pick them up. In the last 20 years, antlers have become extremely popular as home décor and as natural chews in the pet industry. Antler buyers are willing to shell out good money for fresh, brown antlers. In many western states hunters started seeking out shed antlers simply because it was a great way to make extra cash in the off-season. It's a trend that continues to this day.

Why too many shed hunters could be a bad thing.

Shed Hunting

Getty Images: kyletperry

Some of you might be thinking: "What's wrong with shed hunting becoming more popular?" Well, technically, I don't believe there's anything wrong with more people taking to the woods hoping to spot tines from a big buck every spring. It's a great thing more people are getting outdoors at this time of the year. However, it does raise some concerns having more people seeking deer antlers every year. The cool thing about shed hunting is that traditionally, it didn't require any expensive hunting licenses or permits to participate. It was a fun, free activity anyone could do just about anywhere.

However, we have started to hear rumblings of regulations for seeking antlers being put in place. You might be thinking that's an overreach from state wildlife agencies looking to generate more funds, but mostly it seems to be concerns about pressure on big game animals during the late season when they are simply trying to survive the winter.

In states like Wyoming, biologists got concerned about the throngs of people taking to the woods during the hardest parts of winter tromping through feeding areas and bedding areas in public areas hoping to be the first to pick up antlers. As a result, many states now have restrictions on shed hunting where one cannot even start until late April or early May.

In Utah, shed hunters are required to complete an online course on shed hunting ethics. It's a free course, but you must carry proof of completion or else you can be ticketed. And people have been ticketed for breaking a state's shed hunting regulations. Unfortunately, with any good thing, you are likely to have some bad apples in the bunch. In 2018, Wyoming game wardens issued more than 30 citations to people who started shed hunting before the May 1 opening date near the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming.

Incidents like this make us worry it's only a matter of time before state wildlife agencies decide they need to sell licenses before you can pick up antlers. Which would be a real blow for a hobby that has traditionally been mostly free.

We also do worry about more seekers putting that extra pressure on traditional deer, elk, and moose feeding sources when they need it most. Especially on public lands where food may be scarcer. Part of the fun of shed hunting is knowing that big buck or bull is out there waiting to be hunted again next season. However, a mature bucks in poor shape from the rigors of the rut may have his chances of survival lessened because they are constantly being pushed around by hunters or shed dogs inadvertently spooking them.

Let's shed hunt responsibly this season.

Shed Hunting

Travis Smola

Some of you may be thinking there is no way state agencies will adopt regulations restricting shed hunting. However, hunters in Arizona likely did not expect their state to adopt a full trail camera ban that goes into effect this year. That controversial decision came about because of concerns of too much hunting pressure on water sources. If shed hunters cause too many problems, or do not follow the rules already in place, it's not unrealistic to think more shed hunting regulations are coming.

We think restrictions on shed hunting are more likely in western states than the Midwest and eastern parts of the country. However, once one state starts selling shed hunting licenses, it might be hard to get that genie back in the bottle.

So, before you go and hit your favorite stands of conifers, cedars, food sources and fence crossings this year, let's keep some ethics about the health of the animals in mind. Because shed hunting is a great activity for the whole family to enjoy, and we are looking forward to many successful shed hunting seasons to come. Here's hoping we all have our best shed hunting season yet!

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For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels