Does Shed Antler Hunting Need To Be Regulated in Canada?
Maybe this is something only another hunter can understand but don’t you think there is something mystical and powerful about finding a shed antler?
Late one spring, I was plodding through the hard snowpack one crunchy step at time when my eye zoomed to the base of small spruce tree and focused on a freshly cast elk antler laying on top of the snow. The polished ivory tips and burnt umber-coloured main beams told me this antler was from a bull that lived most of the previous year in a dark lodgepole pine forest far up in the mountains. The base of the antler that had fastened it to the elk’s skull was still wet with a bit of the bull’s blood.
The bull had been raking his antlers in the spruce tree when he heard me trudging through the hard snow. In a moment of panic, the bull must have snapped his head up, spun in the direction I was coming from and then bolted in the opposite direction. In that flurry of head jarring movements, he ditched one of his antlers.
Seconds before, this bony structure was part of an animal that I worship. I was in awe of this found treasure. I held it. I smelled it. I extended it out and rotated it around as if it were still attached to the bull’s head. It was a work of art. The second brow tine was forked making the bull a 7-point. I had never seen a bull elk before with a forked brow tine. One small nub of a tine on the end of the antler hinted that the bull would be an 8-point in the coming fall. It’s been 30 years since finding that antler, and although this bull’s time has passed, he still lives when I look at his shed.
Many ungulates will be dropping their antlers over the next couple of months in their annual divorce from the bony protrusions that have adorned their head since last summer. In response to this ritual loss of ungulate antlers, a lot of folks will be heading out shed hunting. Like sleep-deprived kids anticipating Christmas, shed hunters daydream of discovering big sheds and excitedly wait for the snow to melt. Make no bones about it, many hunters love shed-antler hunting.
All over North America, shed hunting has grown in popularity over the last decade. There are instructional videos, online chat forums, how-to articles, YouTube channels and professionally guided trips all focused on the shed hunting phenomenon. Shed hunting is a hobby for some, an obsession for others, and for a few people, it is an economic venture. Yet, for many hunters, the connection made with the land while they are shed hunting is something that likely doesn’t translate well into words and something they probably don’t place a dollar value on.
The reasons why people have a passion for shed hunting are as numerous and as personal as there are people participating in the annual bone hunting ritual. The tactics for shed hunting are also as diverse as the shed hunters themselves. People have trained their dogs to join in on the pursuit of the bone while others like to hunt for tines on horseback. Some hunters meticulously scan hillsides with spotting scopes from hilltop vantage points much like how a dedicated sheep hunter would study good sheep terrain. But if I had to make a prediction, I would bet that most people just lace up the boots and randomly zig zag the landscape while methodically scanning the ground for a glint of the old ivory.
For some, shed hunting is the first chance to get out on their public land after a long winter and make some boot tracks in the fresh air. For hunters, shed hunting is an extension of their regular hunting pursuits that satisfies their instinct to pursue and harvest. For others, shed hunting is an integral part how they develop their hunting plans for the upcoming fall.
I imagine that most hunters are like me and feel that a shed antler is a thing of beauty and a work of art. A shed antler tells a story, but it also cloaked in mystery and conjures up questions about its original owner. The architecture of an antler can tell a lot about local genetics, age structure and health in an ungulate population. Finding shed antlers might bring peace of mind to some hunters knowing that every shed antler represents a buck or a bull that not only evaded hunters in the fall hunting season but also survived the current winter.
But there has also been a negative side to shed hunting that has led some jurisdictions to regulate this activity. Using off-road vehicles to hunt for sheds, gathering sheds in National Parks, chasing and harassing wildlife to get them to knock their antlers off, creating antler traps, and excessive numbers of people impacting winter ranges are things that have gotten a little out of control in some parts of North America.
As a result of some of these challenges, states including Colorado, Wyoming and Utah regulate the timing of shed hunting to help protect the winter ranges particularly when wildlife is vulnerable and stressed. Some states require completion of an online shed hunting certification program beforehand so that everyone knowns how to shed hunt in an ethical and responsible manner. In West Virginia, however, it is unlawful to be in possession of any part of an elk including shed elk antlers.
Shed antlers are worth money, and in some cases, the motivation of some people is to amass sheds specifically to sell them. Thankfully, most shed hunters are ethical and responsible stewards of public land, so they don’t get too carried away. Many hunters care so much about their public land that they pick up more garbage over the course of a year than they do shed antlers.
Many jurisdictions in the United States and Canada have regulations making it unlawful to retain antlers or horns still attached to the skull unless they are from a lawfully killed animal or the finder obtains a permit for the deadhead. All the province’s and territories in Canada allow shed hunters to collect and keep shed antlers.
It is legal to sell antlers in Canada, but rules vary from province to province. In Alberta, for example, selling or giving away antlers from a legally harvested animal is not as easy as selling shed antlers. Wildlife and parts of wildlife can only be sold in Alberta under stringent and controlled conditions
In British Columbia, a person needs a permit to possess dead wildlife or wildlife parts, which includes dead head skulls, but does not include naturally cast antlers. It is illegal to collect shed antlers in any National Park in Canada and the fines are nasty for anyone that does.
There are a few ethical issues related to shed hunting worthy of note. Should people be allowed to bait animals, so they drop their antlers at the bait station? Should shed hunters be allowed to build antler traps to forceable remove loose antlers from a deer’s head?
If a person collects shed antlers and sells them for profit, should he or she contribute a small amount back to wildlife conservation in the province or territory that the antlers were collected in? Money from hunter, angler, guide and trapper license sales in most province’s and territories goes back into wildlife conservation to help keep wildlife on the land. So, if a shed hunter is in possession of a hunting license their dollars have already gone back to conservation. But if a person, who hasn’t bought a hunting license, is profiting from picking up shed antlers on public land without paying back into wildlife conservation, is that something you think should change?
What about foreigners coming to Canada to collect shed antlers and take them back home to sell? I saw a post in an online shed antler hunting forum that read, “I’ve been bringing back sheds from Canada for close to 20 years.” Is that a big deal to you as a public landowner in Canada? Should this person need a license of some kind where the proceeds go back to wildlife conservation in Canada? Maybe a couple of antlers is okay, but a truck load is not. What do you think?
Far too often I see new regulations in the name of wildlife conservation only being applied to hunters and not all outdoor users. For example, after the bad fire season in British Columbia, an emergency regulation was brought into place to prohibit hunters from using ATVs on newly constructed fire roads, yet the mushroom pickers could drive willy-nilly all over the burnt landscape. Here in BC there are roads that access sensitive backcountry areas that hunters are not allowed to drive on, but every other backcountry user can drive on those same roads.
At this point in Canada, I don’t foresee conservation-based reasons to regulate shed antler hunting any more than I see the need to restrict photographers, hikers, skiers or those just walking their dog on our public lands.
Provincial and territorial laws already prohibit the harassment of wildlife and damage to habitat. So, all responsible shed hunters must do is keep an eye out for abusers of wildlife and report what they see to their provincial or territorial wildlife/poaching hot line – which most hunter conservations already have on speed dial!
Looking at the big picture of all the things that are threats to wildlife and habitat in Canada, I’m more interested in prioritizing regulations that better protect public land from major industrial impacts and resource development than what a handful of public land backcountry recreation users are doing on their land.
Like many wildlife conservation issues that crop up, I predict that if shed hunting ever gets too over-zealous here in Canada – to the point that it impacts wildlife or habitat – hunter conservationists will likely be the first ones to sound the alarm.
Happy shed hunting!
Cover Image Copyright © Don Mroczkowski / Adobe Stock