EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado " Alan Butts strikes gold less than five minutes into his hunt. Following a flash of white into a swath of sage brush near McCoy, he discovers an antler under a juniper tree.
The smooth, shiny antler recently fell off a mule deer, he concludes. And he suspects he already has the deer's other antler at his cabin in McCoy.
With beef sticks tucked in the pocket of his denim overalls and binoculars hanging around his neck, Butts, 59, inspects the parched earth for more signs of wildlife. Passing a deer skeleton, he notes a trail of hoof prints in the dirt. "It looks like a pig pen," he notes. "All tracked up."
About 15 minutes later, Butts stumbles upon another antler resting on the dirt. Judging by its sun-bleached color, he concludes the antler fell off a mule deer last spring.
In two hours of scouring the countryside, Butts finds five sheds.
Antlers litter the backcountry this time of year. Tucked under pinion trees, laying in gullies, they are left behind when deer, elk and moose drop their racks.
Antlers are like treasure for the growing number of collectors who comb the backcountry each spring, searching for the racks bucks no longer find valuable.
Shed hunting is the practice of searching for discarded antlers. The hobby is nothing new, but longtime locals say it's become more popular in recent years. "See, when I started doing this 30 years ago, there was only a handful of people doing this," Butts said. "Now, everybody and their brother will do it, and through the sagebrush they go."
In fact, shed hunters complain that all that competition makes it harder to find antlers.
Shed hunting is legal on public lands. Deer and elk typically begin shedding their antlers in late January or February, a wildlife official said. The animals begin re-growing them almost right away. Although no official shed hunting season exists, several locals said they search for antlers in March, April and May.
Avon resident Ralph Roberts is among them. He goes out nearly every day searching the land around Avon for sheds. So far this year, he's found 85 antlers, including 15 matching sets. A matching set is two antlers from the same buck.
"I'm in it for the exercise and the opportunity to have a trophy without killing the animal," Roberts said.
A sign that reads "Antler Crafts" leads drivers into the tiny town of McCoy. That's where Butts operates his business. Stepping into a shack, the visitor finds buckets of small white antlers (they sell for $5) and boxes of big, chocolate brown antlers (some sell for $35). The visitor comes face to face with a large elk and deer heads mounted on the wall.
A second building covered in antlers houses Butts' creations. Knives with antler handles glint in their cases, while antler jewelry hangs on racks.
Antler have long been a fixture of Western decorating, and that helps to explain the booming market for the sheds. Kurt Gordon, an antler craftsman in Dubois, Wyo., said he sold antler chandeliers to several Vail Valley hotels, including the Vail Marriot Mountain Resort and Spa in Lionshead. "They're all over the world, my stuff," the Vail Valley native said. "I had a client fly a leer jet from New York to Eagle to pick up a chandelier one time."
A large stack of antlers greets drivers on Minturn's Main Street. The art project belongs to Bill Reis, owner of the Battle Mountain Trading Post. Reis is familiar with the antler business. He says a single antler can fetch anywhere from $10 to $40. Roberts adds that a set sell for up to $1,000.
Two events scheduled for May in neighboring Wyoming illustrate the booming antler market. The third annual Antler Rendezvous in Dubois will attract vendors from across North America. An antler auction in Jackson Hole on May 17 and 18 is expected to attract up to 5,000 people. Boy scouts cull the sheds from the town's National Elk Refuge. Last year, the event sold 5,379 pounds of antler, raking in nearly $60,000, Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce marketing and events manager Heather Falk said. Most of the proceeds flow to elk management on the refuge, she said.
The antlers draw buyers form around the globe.
"A lot of the Asian markets will grind it down and use it as an aphrodisiac," Falk said. "I know that sounds crazy " it's all-natural Viagra " but it's true."
Of course, some antlers are too precious to sell.
Butts keeps a shiny mule deer shed in his cabin. The story: About 14 years ago, he spotted a buck with just one antler. The antler fell off before his eyes. "This one will never go to the saw because it's special," Butts said.
Some people take shed hunting too far. Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, points to cases where people have broken the law to get antlers.
"We've had people that will chase animals while the antlers are still on " chase them with snowmobiles trying to get the antlers to fall off," he said.
In extreme cases, people have gone so far as to poach the animals for their antlers. In 2004, an Iowa man was convicted of poaching dozens of deer and elk in Colorado.
With most poaching cases, the problem boils down to money, Hampton said. A legitimate market for the antlers thrives. "But there's also this whole underground black market trade of some of these antlers that's fairly nefarious and is a pretty serious threat to wildlife," Hampton said. "Your average shed hunter isn't going to fall into that category by any stretch of the imagination but we see that with some of the poaching things we deal with."
Shed hunters can disturb wildlife in other ways. In parts of Gunnison, Saguache and Hinsdale counties, officials this year banned shed hunting between March 15 and May 15. The change came in response to concerns that shed hunters were interfering with the sage-grouse mating season.
Here in the Vail Valley, Hampton cautions shed hunters against getting too close to the animals. Deer and elk are vulnerable at the end of a harsh winter, when their energy reserves are depleted, he said.
"If people are out there and looking for sheds and disturbing them, they can do damage to the herd," he said. "That stress on the herd can cause animals to die."
High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 748-2938 or firstname.lastname@example.org.