Is shed hunting ethical?
A Utah conservationist weighs the hobby’s popularity with its moral stakes.
Just shy of seven years ago, I moved from the Midwest to Utah to work for the state as an aquatics biologist. On my first winter hike, I slumped over with fatigue as more experienced people hiked past me. Nevertheless, I soon fell in love with the mountains and, eventually, I discovered big-game hunting. Though I had fished in my childhood, I’d never gone hunting, and I was dazzled by the inspirational stories I heard from my new friends and colleagues.
Finally, I bought a bow. I scouted every weekend I could, and in late August, I called in a spike elk that my hunting partner shot in a big marshy meadow near Kamas, Utah. The animal’s meat filled our freezer and will feed us for the next nine months.
Lately, however, I’ve been pummeled time after time with a kind of hunting question that I’d never heard before: “Are you going shed hunting this year?”
Elk and deer prefer to avoid human disturbances — things like roads, energy development, bicyclists, hikers and snowmobiles. During the winter, the animals’ fat reserves decrease drastically, and human intrusion — even when the humans don’t know that wildlife are around — means that the animals react and burn extra calories that they might not be able to afford to lose, decreasing their chances of survival. This is especially true for pregnant cows and does: One disturbance can often mean the difference between life and death.
Shed hunting — the gathering of shed antlers in the wild, often to sell — sounds innocuous. But as a hunter and a biologist, I’ve seen the impacts of its burgeoning popularity, and I’m increasingly disturbed by the trend.
FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, humans have used shed antlers as raw materials for tools. But recently, shed hunting has morphed into a commercial enterprise. These days, a collector can get around $18 per pound for a modest shed, compared to just over a $1.50 in 1974. From 2009 to 2018, the price of shed antlers at the annual U.S. Fish and Wildlife Boy Scout Elk Auction rose steadily at an average rate of 8%.
YouTube channels, Instagram pages, Twitter feeds and Facebook groups are dedicated to the selling, buying and promotion of shed hunting as a sport and moneymaking business. Antlers are transformed into dog chews, chandeliers, curtain holders, mantel décor, knife handles, table legs, coat hangers, lampstand bases, jewelry — and even toilet paper holders.
And prices can vary wildly: On eBay, a chandelier made of elk, moose, caribou and deer antlers was selling for nearly $10,000. Inflation alone cannot account for the current price of antlers, while the phenomenon of the pricey DIY chandelier variety seems to be confined to a niche market willing to pay top dollar for such creations.