Wildlife Antler Collecting
Can Cause Habitat Damage
This is the time of year when many people take to the field, scouring the countryside on foot or by vehicle, in hopes of finding freshly shed wildlife antlers or perhaps a carcass with horns still intact. The competitive rush to be the first to find these antlers, and make a profit from them, results in several unethical or illegal activities that are of concern to officials of the Arizona Game & Fish Department.

One of the interesting behaviors of deer and elk is that the males of each species grow and shed their antlers annually. According to Game & Fish officials, larger bull elk generally begin shedding their antlers the first part of March, while buck deer do their shedding about a month later in April. New antler growth begins almost immediately thereafter.

A by-product of this natural cycle is that antlers have various commercial values. Antlers are used for arts and crafts such as earrings, necklaces, and lamps. They have also been highly sought after in Asian markets for human consumption as an aphrodisiac, healing agent, or "empowering" agent. This year, however, both North and South Korea have placed a moratorium on the importation of antlers due to evidence of chronic wasting disease appearing at several Canadian elk farms.

One result of this Asian moratorium is that the largest antler-purchasing firm in the U.S. is not buying this year. Brown, shed antlers are currently only selling for $2 a pound, whereas a few years ago they brought prices of $8-10 a pound.

"Antler collecting is a legal activity," said Ron Thompson, law enforcement program manager in the Pinetop Game & Fish office. "However, one of our primary concerns is an ever-increasing number of individuals who, instead of walking as they look for antlers, are driving four-wheel-drive vehicles (OHVs) or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) off-road, across the countryside, to aid them with their search." In sensitive habitat areas, such as alpine meadows and riparian areas (rivers and streams), deep tire ruts, soil erosion, and other extensive damage can and frequently does occur because of this vehicular activity — especially after an average precipitation winter, such as we're currently experiencing.

With the exception of designated wildlife areas, wilderness areas, and specific area closures, National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands are typically signed as being open to OHV travel. "However," said Thompson, "citations can and will be issued to OHV operators for any habitat damage they cause on these lands." He also notes that both the OHV and the operator must be properly licensed to travel on forest roads.

Some blocks of sensitive habitats on National Forest lands are also closed to OHV travel during certain times of the year. For example, on the Clifton Ranger District of the Apache National Forest, the road to Saunders and Sawmill Cabin, north of the Four Drag Ranch, will be closed to OHV travel this spring, until July 1, to protect riparian and stream habitat in Upper Eagle Creek. Vehicle travel on any trail on the district is prohibited, and any off-road travel right now can result in a citation because of wet terrain conditions. For specific information on OHV closures in other sensitive habitats, contact the appropriate, local U.S. Forest Service Ranger District office.

Thompson also advises antler collectors to be aware that if they are
gathering antlers on the Clifton Ranger District and then transporting them through Malay Gap and across the San Carlos Indian Reservation, they are in violation of tribal regulations and subject to seizure and citations. The San Carlos Tribe does not allow possession of antlers on their lands by non-tribal members.

An additional concern, according to Thompson, is increased interactions between people and elk while they are on critical winter ranges. Forage quality this time of year is poor, yet elk are in a crucial developmental period. Bulls are still recuperating from the fall rut, and pregnant cows are entering their critical third trimester. "The quality of their body condition at this time will result in either a good, healthy calf crop, or they will produce lower numbers of calves that may have a more difficult time surviving," he said. "As people encounter elk groups in the field and move them around, they increase the stress level of these animals."

"There are also increased incidences which involve people who are deliberately harassing bulls," said Thompson. "They pursue them either on foot, horseback, or with ATVs in hopes of causing them to knock their antlers off while escaping through the trees. This kind of behavior, besides being unethical, is illegal."

Thompson said that he is often asked if an individual, while walking through the forest and comes upon a bull elk carcass with the antlers still intact, can legally cut the antlers off and keep or sell them. His reply
is, "If the animal died of natural causes, permission can be given to keep or sell the antlers. However, it is a requirement that you first contact your local Game & Fish office to allow an officer to determine how the animal died. Citations can be issued for possession of parts of an animal that died of unnatural causes."

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