Sometimes it seems like the public lands around us never stop giving.
They give us a good time when we strap on skis, lace up hiking boots or pull out the mountain bike. They inspire us to capture lasting images and ponder fleeting reflections. They also supply tangible rewards found while mushroom foraging or Christmas tree cutting.
For many locals, hunting for antler sheds is a popular way to reap bounty from public lands. Each year, male deer elk grow antlers used for display and battles with competitors during the fall mating season. By mid to late winter, those antlers begin falling off naturally and the process begins anew.
Late winter into early spring is considered the prime collecting period, bring out shed hunters across the state in search of fresh antlers that artisans use to make furniture, knife handles and other art projects. Antlers are also sold to make dog treats and other creations.
“The true avid shed hunters watch the animals while they still have their antlers to see when they fall off,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife district manager Wescoatt. “It is very popular around here and I think people underestimate the number of shed hunters out there and the amount of animal disturbance that can happen while people are enjoying the activity.”
For some shed hunters, the activity is an outgrowth of their passion for big game hunting. For others it is a commercial enterprise as evidenced by the popularity of those huge antler chandeliers popular in mountain lodges. Some have been at it for years and some only recently discovered the fun.
Mark Plachta II discovered a passion for shed hunting after he moved to Colorado in the late summer of 2007.
During his first spring in the state, Plachta found a discarded antler by accident while fishing the edge of a lake.
“It was hanging in a bush about waist high,” said Plachta.
After researching more on the subject, he went out to actively hunt the sheds – without much luck that first spring as he got started a little late. That remains a challenge for Plachta, who works as a Berry Creek Middle School teacher and coach. He likes to hunt between girls basketball and track seasons.
Plachta hunts with anyone he can rally, but it usually ends up being with Eagle resident Matt Leach. His girlfriend Amanda Hawkins also has gained an appreciation for the activity during the last few years.
And then there is Blue, Plachta’s shed-hunting Labrador retriever, who actually found antlers all on his own.
“He often runs too hard and does pretty serious damage to his pads, but he never misses an opportunity to go,” said Plachta.
Plachta loves the fact that shed hunting is an inexpensive way to get outside, fight cabin fever and spend quality time with friends and family.
“It’s a great transition between ski season and float season, and it offers a reasonable excuse to stay fit,” said Plachta.
Like serious fishermen who keep the location of their favorite holes secret, Wescoatt noted that serious shed hunters are typically closed mouthed. “Most people are aware of where animals are in the winter, but there are areas that are shed hunters’ secret holes and they like to keep them secret.”
Although some shed hunters sell what they find, many use sheds to decorate their own house or yard. Dogs also use the antlers for chew toys. Sometimes you can spot antlers in piles in front of shed hunters’ residences.
“I always say it’s (shed hunting) like an Easter egg hunt for antler addicts,” said Plachta. “It makes me feel like a kid.”
Eagle resident Ron Beard has been shed hunting for the last couple decades. He has experienced good seasons and bad seasons, but enjoys the experience each season.
“It gives you an opportunity to hike in some amazing country,” said Beard. “I like it because it places me where big game has been out of hunting season.”
As shed hunters contemplate their 2015 western Colorado excursions, they need to comply with new regulations enacted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
In an effort to reduce stress and the disturbance of wintering big game animals, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission adopted new regulations in January to limit shed antler collecting in portions of Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, and Routt counties, effective March 1.
The new rule prohibits the collection of shed antlers in game management units 25, 26, 35, 36, 43, 44, 47, 444,and 471, with the following criteria:
Effective March 1, 2015 the regulation goes into effect — shed antler hunting will not be allowed at any time in these game management units after March 1, 2015 through March 14, 2015.
Beginning March 15 through May 15, 2015 — Collecting will be allowed only between 10 a.m. through sunset. Collecting is not allowed after sunset through 10 a.m. the next morning.
Beginning Jan. 1, 2016, the regulation will be in effect. No antler shed hunting allowed prior to March 15 and then only between 10 a.m. and sunset.
“The purpose of the regulations is to reduce the stress on the animals,” said Wescoatt. “If everyone plays by these rules, everyone will have the same chance to collect sheds on March 15 that they would have on March 1.
“Available winter range in this area is being reduced due to increases in the human population, development, and outdoor recreation,” said CPW’s Northwest Regional Manager Ron Velarde. “If they are pressured during the cold weather months, big game animals here have no place else to go to find food, so it is critical that people cooperate and respect the regulation to prevent animal mortality due to starvation.”
Similar restriction are already in place in game management units 54, 55, 66, 67 and 551 in Gunnison County, instituted several years ago to protect Gunnison sage-grouse and big game animals.
“Violators may be fined and assessed points against their hunting and fishing privileges,” said Velarde.
Wildlife officials believe most collectors are conscientious and careful, but concerns arise when some search for sheds on noisy, fast-moving ATVs and off-road vehicles. In addition, a growing number of collectors use dogs trained to find shed antlers. When allowed to run off-leash, many of these dogs chase deer and elk, occasionally causing severe injuries and extreme stress.
Running from noise and dogs adds to the difficult conditions the animals already endure during winter months.
“That’s just about the worst thing that can happen to them,” said CPW Wildlife Manager Perry Will of Glenwood Springs. “Any unnecessary movement during the cold weather months causes big game to use up their fat stores very quickly and there’s little chance of replenishing it. This situation leads to their death, or the deaths of their unborn calves and fawns due to poor body condition.”
Wildlife managers remind shed hunters that keeping their distance from wintering big game is the most effective way to prevent animal stress and mortality. Even searching for antlers on foot or horseback can create stressful conditions for wildlife, they say.
“We understand that people enjoy hunting sheds, but we ask everyone to be legal and ethical,” said Will. “The best option is to follow the laws and keep your distance, and maybe wait until big game has moved to summer range to begin looking for sheds.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife urges anyone who observes illegal activity to contact their local wildlife officer, or to remain anonymous, contact Operation Game Thief at 877-265-6648. Rewards are available for information that leads to a citation.
For a map of Colorado’s game management units, go to http://www.cpw.state.co.us/Documents/Maps/RulesRegs/BigGameGMUmap.pdf. For more information about the new shed collection restrictions, contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Glenwood Springs office at 970-947-2920.