May 1, 2023, opening day of the shed hunt near Jackson, Wyoming, dawns clear and cold.

Antler Madness

Editor’s Note: Retrieving antlers on public land remains a balance between opportunity, access, safety, and conservation. Last year, the Wyoming Legislature created a resident-only season on select public lands during the first week of May, with nonresidents who purchase a conservation stamp allowed after May 7. This story details an experience during the opening day of 2023 before this legislation became effective in 2024.

Teton County sheriffs and personnel from the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Wyoming Game & Fish Department, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — essentially, most of the heat in western Wyoming — have coalesced along the gravel roads adjacent to the National Elk Refuge near Jackson Hole in the early morning light. Far off, a convoy of trucks towing horse trailers gnaws up the road. Bedfuls of camouflaged men squat in fishtailing pickups. With my binoculars, I watch three “shed bulls” — bull elk that had recently dropped their antlers — graze along a high, wind-swept ridge.

A man on horseback returns with some sheds on the opening day in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

May 1 is the opening day for shed hunting near Jackson, Wyoming and in many public land areas within the state. The opener is a much-celebrated event — a grassroots festival with no analog — whose arrival marks the end of winter and the beginning of better times. The slopes adjacent to the elk refuge wear a patchwork of snowfields and islands of knotty sage that appear purple at first light. The reason for this frenetic activity — the law enforcement and the motorcade — is what lies among the trees and along the creeks: Owing to its proximity to the refuge, this area is replete with antler sheds.

Reacting to a crash in testosterone, male moose, deer, and elk drop their antlers in late spring and immediately begin to regenerate their next set. For varying reasons — some financial, some atavistic — people collect fallen antlers as trophies or talismans of another year in the books. Some sell them to brokers, give them to friends, or store them in chilly garages. They become chandeliers, lampstands, and dog chews.

U.S. Forest Service officials guide cars into the shed hunting area past the National Elk Refuge.

My companion for the day is photojournalist Natalie Behring. As she wanders near the roadside with her camera, the phalanx of trucks arrives in a cloud of dust and spraying gravel. In unison, the shed bulls I had been watching above lift their heads and snap out of sight.

The lead truck in the motorcade, which drivers must register for a month in advance, sports Idaho plates and carries six camo-clad shed hunters in the bed. The bearded man driving looks to be 10 years my senior. And he appears worried. He hesitates for a second, not sure where to go.

“Just park, Dad!” cries one of the men from the bed.

Before the vehicle has come to a proper stop, men leap overboard. They hit the ground running to the north with no clear destination. Red-faced and anxious, they fan out in the sage and run into the shadows of the Gros Ventre Range as if their village is under attack. The driver pulls on his empty backpack and breaks into a stride particular to his advanced age, suffering at first, but loosening up as he goes.

A shed hunter roams the ridge in search of an overlooked quarry.

Most of what happens over the next 15 minutes remains fuzzy. It is a loud, dusty event. The impatient banging of horse hooves against trailer walls, the trailers fishtailing in gravel as the drivers maneuver, park, and jump out. People in full cowboy regalia — chaps, hats, and pistols — throw open their doors and race to free their already saddled horses. The wide-eyed animals charge out into the biting Northern Rockies air. I’m nearly trampled by a woman leading a nervous pony. She couldn’t see me standing there snapping photos — how could she? — with all that is at stake. On her face is a pained, harried expression that I diagnose as antler panic.

“Stay on the road!” bark men from the U.S. Forest Service — or are they from the Sheriff’s Department? It’s hard to tell who is in charge. Platoons of men in light backpacks scuttle their vehicles along the road. They descend the moderately steep banks of Flat Creek, but they’re still on the National Elk Refuge. The reprimands are harsh. Law enforcement herds the men up the road, keeping them legal; the possibility of running afoul of the law is substantial.

The 2023 hunt is on: A convoy of cars headed to the Jackson hunting area emerges from the early-morning mist as a part of a registered motorcade that begins at daylight.

I’m here to report, but if I happen to stumble upon a dandy “brown,” then so be it. Browns are elk antlers that have recently dropped and have not been whitened by exposure to weather and sunlight. Hard whites have spent some time in the elements and are, therefore, less coveted. But, in the hierarchy of shed hunting — and hunting is used inadvisably here — a deadhead, the intact skull and rack of a winter-killed bull elk, is the ultimate prize. 

The parking area empties, and we find ourselves in the company of law enforcement and a Berkeley researcher who is studying the economic impacts of shed hunting in Western states.

Hunters on horseback carefully scan the ground in search of well-camouflaged sheds.

We travel down a two-track pocked with old elk sign and fresh horse nobs. I don’t think we’ll find anything since the first wave of hunters thoroughly trounced the area. They appear off in the distance, traveling with difficulty in the leftover snow crust. Natalie photographs the horsemen silhouetted on the ridge crests, but they’re too far off. Despite their haste and hard-charging ponies, they have nothing to show for their efforts so far. Their panniers sag open and empty. If guys with horses are coming up empty, what are the chances of two journalists finding an armful of browns or even some hard whites? I’ve never wanted an antler so badly in my life.

What pagan forces had come over me? Despite my efforts to resist shed hunting — I’ve been a Wyoming resident for 25 years and never once considered taking up the hobby — I find myself caught up in the energy and reckless, unbridled enthusiasm of the morning.

Members of a local youth organization comb the National Elk Refuge for sheds to be auctioned at a spring benefit.

When you hold a pair of elk antlers in your hands, you notice that they are cool, like the mountains they come from, almost as if they have recently been dipped in a brook-trout stream. They seem to glow from within. A closer look reveals the individual character, the chips from fighting other bulls, and the dark pitch from being rubbed against fir trees. Anachronistic and substantial in a world of increasing fluff, one can see how elk antlers take hold of people. I can forgive someone for simply wanting to have them because they are beautiful.

Their architecture is familiar, like a spider web or the arc of a leaping salmon. Once you recognize them, you notice them everywhere. In fact, one of the defining characteristics of downtown Jackson Hole is its iconic arches made entirely of sheds. Tourists line up to have themselves photographed beneath the arches, all day, all year long. As you are reading this, someone is having their photo snapped beneath one of the arches, and they are grinning.

A shed hunter loads antlers on her truck.

As we comb through the sage, I want nothing more than a brown six point. I manage to find a perfect, untouched roll of gray duct tape, shed, no doubt, by one of the more enthusiastic antler collectors as he rumbled out for the horizon. I put it in my backpack.

My discussion with Natalie turns to collecting and acquisition. Why all the hype? We have conflicting theories about why grown men and women give up rationality and cast off their regular lives, not to mention a fair amount of financial investment, in the pursuit of antlers. Natalie compares this shed-collecting event to an “Easter egg hunt for adults.” She suggests that early man found antlers beautiful and symbolic, and that our desire for them is a vestigial impulse. I counter her, saying that nomadic hunters traveled lightly; they didn’t collect anything that didn’t contribute to their day-to-day survival. The antler craze is a fairly recent phenomenon brought on by late-stage capitalism’s indiscriminate, winner-take-all competition.

Tailgating offers camaraderie and a bit of respite after the morning’s excitement.

Perhaps we are both wrong. We struggle to understand why over 800 vehicles and thousands of people have descended upon this otherwise peaceful valley. Kevin Simpson, a sports psychologist who studies neuropsychology, explains collecting this way: “For me, there’s a reflection of identity in this chase — it’s what psychologists called the ‘endowment effect.’ The objects we collect, be they coins, knives, stamps, or garden gnomes, can extend our identities to the world around us.” Simpson connects this behavior with a part of the brain called the cingulate gyrus (behind our frontal lobes, the seat of our rationality), which “fires like crazy” when we engage in behaviors that yield rewards.

We encounter a fit man on a mountain bike. Like the others, he’s covered head to toe in camo. A brown six-point antler, his only reward so far, is strapped across his back. Dan, a Jackson native, reluctantly agrees to an interview. When asked for his last name, he grimaces: “Dan,” he repeats.

Dan has been collecting antlers for years and recalls the good ol’ days when the annual hunt was a more leisurely, social event. He worries about poaching. “The sport has gotten pretty crazy over the years, and the people that do [poach] — they just figure they need to get out there before everyone else,” says Dan.

As shed hunting popularized — as the intrinsic, aesthetic, and monetary value of antlers multiplied — legislatures in states like Wyoming codified the seemingly simple practice of collecting cast-off antlers with its own season and regulations. They had to in order to keep human activity minimal in areas where wildlife overwinters.

A father carries heavy sheds found on the National Elk Refuge as his kids participate in the search.

Arriving back at the road, just as the first shed hunters emerge from the slopes with their heavy packs, my colleague and I roam among them. One family from Utah has made the most of the morning. The children are red-faced and sweaty after having to keep up with their father and mother — both camo-clad — but it was worth it, they claim. Everyone in that group found at least one brown.

Men toil under the substantial weight of antlers as they cross Flat Creek and return to their trucks. The atmosphere along the road is celebratory. The hard part is over. The sun rises over the Gros Ventres, and the horses, unsaddled and watered, are tied to the trailers. Antlers are spread around the vehicles as groups recount the morning. One man lays in the sunshine and dozes like a prophet, a dozen browns arranged around him like pupils.

Hunter Rackham says her group found about 50 sheds this year, a huge number given that they were skunked last season. “We are all Idaho residents,” she says. “We actually live on the Wyoming/Idaho state border, so our mailbox is in Alta, Wyoming, but we live in Driggs, Idaho.”

Like many out-of-state hunters, this is a nostalgic day for Rackham’s group. They lament that new legislation will cut them out of the opening-day shed hunting next year. They have had an adrenaline-filled morning, complete with a rolled horse and broken cinch.

Law enforcement of various stripes trolls the road as more and more shed hunters emerge from the slopes. But the intensity has vanished. No one is going to jail or even being ticketed. Everyone has behaved themselves, more or less.

The calm after the storm: This enthusiast rests his eyes after a successful morning hunt.

Two ultra-runners do well by simply outrunning the others. Some people talk about the dumb luck of it; you sort of stumble upon sheds as you press up the slopes, they explain. You walk by and miss some. Sometimes, they are where you imagine them to be. One taciturn man comes back from the sage with a deadhead over his shoulders. The skull is wrapped in a plastic bag, and the man marches to his truck, speaks to no one, and drives off with his prize.

We mingle with the shed hunters — the skunked and the wildly successful. We ask more questions about the value of antlers. Is there an antler buyer poised on the road who would buy these sheds for $20 a pound, or is that just a rumor? Someone reports a single gunshot. Did anyone else hear it? We ask all these questions, but never the one I really ponder: Why does someone risk life and limb (and sometimes prison) for antlers when they’re not at all rare? What is it about them that helps us?

After our interviews are complete, Natalie and I head our separate ways. I have to drive four hours to Casper, so I refill my gas tank and hit the road.

As my vehicle climbs out of Jackson, I see them: a herd of cows, calves, and shed bulls pressing north toward Yellowstone and the Thorofare. People have pulled onto the shoulder of the road to photograph them. I pull over, too. Families drift from their cars and venture 40 yards into the sage. Holding their hands up to their faces to shield their eyes from the brilliant sun, they watch and whisper as if their reverence for the great beasts might make them stay. But the animals push on in no real hurry, as if we are not there, as if, despite the proximity, we are in separate worlds.

David Zoby is a freelance writer from Casper, Wyoming who has been writing and publishing essays and stories for over 20 years. His work regularly appears in Gray’s Sporting Journal, The Drake, and  The Sun Magazine; @davidzoby.

Natalie Behring is a freelance photojournalist based in Victor, Idaho. Behring has worked for major publications throughout the world for decades, and recently returned to Idaho to be close to her family. When not taking photos, she can be found hiking in the mountains with her border collie and hanging trail cameras in trees.

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