Antler Hunting

Elkhunter

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Jackson, Wyoming


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.
 

Oak

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Dec 23, 2000
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I don't know. I guess it would be kinda fun, but I go antler hunting to just get out. This group makes it sound a whole lot like work. What a circus.

Oak
 

Elkhunter

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Jackson, Wyoming
It is one of the biggest events around here.
I think ELKCHSR's descriptions hit the nail on the head.

News&Guide photo / Lucas J Gilman
An antler hunter and his horse gets the jump on more than 200 competitors Thursday as the end of winter closures allowed access to forest lands via the National Elk Refuge.

 

BuzzH

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Laramie, WY
Nothing more pleasing than getting away from it all with a couple hundred drunk idiots acting like over-grown kids on an easter egg hunt.

I've witnessed a similar mess in MT with antlers...once was more than enough to see such childish actions...all over an antler or two.

To each their own, but you couldnt get me near a mess like that ever again.
 

Greenhorn

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Dec 19, 2000
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Ditto to that Buzz. What a joke. A bow, arrow, and rubber blunt might be the best treatment for that guy on the horse above.
 

Elkhunter

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Hmmmm.....must have missed the part about them being drunk idiots.


LOL on the arrows Greeny


I was wondering why he was all decked out in camo. Did he think he was going to have to sneak up on the antlers?
 

BuzzH

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Elkhunter from the above article:"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."

Greenhorn, that would be cool to see, a camo-clad horse idiot taking a blunt...only thing better would be seeing a camo clad ATVer taking multiple blunt hits.

<FONT COLOR="#800080" SIZE="1">[ 05-08-2003 08:25: Message edited by: BuzzH ]</font>
 

Skeeter

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Aug 22, 2001
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Jackson, Wyoming
Since I work at the Elk Refuge I have a problem with this mahem. What people don't talk about is the people that go into winter range weeks early and stash horns and then rush in to get there stashes when the winter range opens. Do these people care about the surrounding wildlife? Hell no! All they care about is $$$$. People even have the balls to sneek in early on opening day. They will keep on doing it because the judge lets them off. I know that at least a couple of people got off last year. We will have to see what happens this year, my bet is the people that got busted this year will get a hand slap at the most. You see people go in at 8 am on May 1st and come out a couple of hours later with half a pick-up load of horns. It even takes us longer to pick that many horns on the feed grounds of the refuge. I won't even get into the issue of people poaching the refuge. I'm not saying everyone breaks the rules, but you would be surprised at how many people have no respect for wildlife and there winter range.
 

RockyDog

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Jul 17, 2002
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Hamilton MT
Skeeter, Is the famous Shane Wassem still patrolling the range? I read an article about him versus the antler hunters in the wall street journal.
 

Elkhunter

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You must have been to drunk to remember pointer.


That's why the guy on the horse is running. He was being shot at with blunt arrows.
 

FEW

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AZ
ATVers taking multiple blunt hits? Sounds fun, maybe I should become an ATVer.
I dont know about multiple though, I would only take one if I had to drive my ATV back to camp.
 

Skeeter

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Aug 22, 2001
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Jackson, Wyoming
One of the horseman did get hit with a blunt arrow. Some guy dumped his horse with antlers strapped to it's back. Needless to say the horse wasn't feeling to well afterwards.
 
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