Photographs by Lucas J. Gilman
Horse trailers, trucks and cars line the Elk Refuge road in the moments before 8 a.m.
It's all about antlers
Dozens of eager treasure hunters line up a day in advance to claim what elk leave behind.
By Allison Arthur
Passengers in the line of trucks on the National Elk Refuge waited anxiously for the go-ahead early Thursday. Some of the 175 parties had been braving the cold and living out of their trucks anticipating this moment for days.
Men in camouflage and cowboy garb passed the time preparing for the hunt and trying to stay warm on the brisk spring morning. The scene was reminiscent of eager skiers overflowing the maze awaiting the opening of the ski resort on a huge powder day.
The jewel in quest: elk antlers.
May 1 is a monumental day for elk antler hunters. At 8 a.m. sharp, the Bridger-Teton National Forest officially opens winter range that's been closed to protect wildlife. At that time, those seeking access to Forest Service land up Flat Creek, Curtis Canyon and the the Gros Ventre range are free to cross the National Elk Refuge and roam the forest in search of treasured shed elk antlers.
Boone Smith and his party of four had a plan of attack: "We are going to run like hell," he said.
The group from Preston, Idaho, traveled to Jackson specifically for the annual event. They arrived to get in line on Tuesday night but were turned away and asked to come back the next morning as Elk Refuge officials discourage people from lining up more than 24 hours in advance.
Although Smith and his party were on foot, as opposed the preferred method of many, horseback, they were not discouraged. They landed the coveted first spot in line and garnered some valuable information from their temporary neighbor, Kyle Rooke.
"Being on foot is tougher," said Rooke, who has participated in the annual antler hunt every year since he was a child.
Rooke always comes to Jackson with his horses from his home in Idaho to get in line early. This year he ended up fifth.
Elk antlers, which are often turned into furniture and artistic artifacts, are coveted and valuable items that are sold around the world and often hard to come by. Smith, though, explained that the draw to him is much less about the money than the ritual and experience of the hunt.
"It is almost not even worth taking off work to do it anymore," he said of the money.
The free-market value of the antlers can be close to $10 per pound on a good year, but the price has dropped to around $8 or less in the last year he said.
Forty-five cars back was the first set of Teton County plates. Filled with Eric Rahilly, Ryan Lakovitch, Jerod Jardine and John Toolson, the truck and trailer were packed with gear and horses. The crew, which had been in line since 2 p.m. the day before, was ready to go and warming up for the hunt with cans of Budweiser instead of cups of coffee.
"It's just something to do in the springtime," said Rahilly. "We're not here for the money. We just do it to have fun."
Smith and Rahilly both cited the rowdy scene and the crowd as the most fun part of the hunt. Rahilly was amused by a wild bucking bronc one of his friends was preparing to ride.
"It's like being at the rodeo," said Smith of the cowboy scene.
Elk Refuge officials said crowd maintenance is important to keep the event a peaceful one.
"We have to keep the drunks from killing each other," joked Steve Cruse, a law enforcement officer for National Elk Refuge. Every now and then, through the course of the night, someone got kicked out of line by law enforcement officials.
This year, due to an early spring and a mild winter, the chance of finding a lot of antlers increased, Cruse said. The elk migrated off the refuge and onto the Forest Service land earlier than usual, making the chance of the antlers shedding in the forest a greater possibility. The better odds drew a record number of hunters and vehicles reported Forest Service officials.
"More and more people are catching onto this," said Jim Griffin, information officer for the Elk Refuge.
Griffin said that 10 years ago there were usually only about 50 parties who lined up for the hunt. Now the crowd rushes up the mountains as soon as the gate is open and hits the hills on foot, horseback four-wheelers and even on bikes.
Not 10 minutes after the gate was open, the hunters were dispersed and practically disappeared from sight. The only evidence was an occasional squeal of excitement that could be heard when someone found an antler.
Just hours after the hunt began, most of the obvious finds were claimed. Other groups of hunters lead their pack horses on longer quests, high up the hills and the search lasted until nightfall.