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What Is 'Shed Hunting,' and Is It Legal?

By Richard Dahl on April 05, 2022 11:20 AM

The first thing to know about shed hunting is that it has nothing to do with searching for small storage buildings.

The term shed hunting refers to a different kind of shed: deer antlers. (And yes, "shed" is indeed a noun. The American Heritage Dictionary defines this kind of shed as "something, such as exoskeleton or outer skin, that has been shed or sloughed.")

All male members of the deer family shed their antlers annually, usually in the late winter or early spring, and that is when shed hunters emerge in quest of quality antlers.

For many, it's a great excuse to get some exercise, but others are driven by a profit motive. Purchasers (we'll shed more light on them below) pay by the pound and at increasing rates — hence, more people are stomping around in the wilds hunting for sheds. The rates vary depending on quality, species, and region, but a good-quality deer or elk shed will fetch payments of $10-15 per pound. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, deer sheds generally range from three to nine pounds, while a large elk shed can weigh 20 pounds. Sometimes collectors will pay up to $1,500 for a particularly handsome set of antlers.

A seasoned shed hunter who knows the secrets of the craft, like scouting in advance where deer are wintering, can make a good side income. Ben Dettamanti, for instance, estimates that he makes about $20,000 per year from selling sheds. He's more than quadrupled that income by becoming an Instagram "shed influencer" with 63,500 followers and producer of YouTube videos. Other shed hunters follow similar online strategies.

A Useful Commodity

Humans have always found good uses for deer antlers. Native Americans used them for hide scrapers, spearpoints, knife handles, and hairpins. Non-indigenous settlers in the American West used them as decorations inside and outside of homes and other buildings.

But in more recent times, the demand for them has expanded to new uses. An export pipeline to China, where antlers are ground into powder and used in traditional medicine for purported anti-inflammation benefits, has existed for several decades. High-end home-décor designers continue to come up with countless uses for antlers, including chandeliers, lamps, and bases for chairs and sofas.

But a big reason for the escalation in antler demand is because dogs love them. Nobody knows why, and dogs won't explain, but antlers are supposedly safer than bones because they are less likely to chip and pose a choking risk for dogs.

States Tighten Regulations

The growing demand and value of sheds coupled with the exposure from digital media mean more shed hunters. The result: States are responding with new restrictions.

One of the reasons state conservation departments are tightening the rules on shed hunting is that deer and elk in the wild are especially vulnerable during late winter — the peak time to hunt for newly discarded sheds. Deer and elk possess an innate sense to prepare for winter with fat reserves. However, when humans appear, they must flee and burn their reserves at a time when the food supply is low. Too many shed hunters could endanger local deer and elk populations.

Taking sheds from national parks and refuges is generally against the law, although officials carved out an exception for the Wyoming National Elk Refuge. Jackson area Boy Scouts help refuge staff collect antlers for auction each year through a special-use permit. Last year, the auction netted $300,000.

Unlike game hunting, shed hunting does not generally require a license. Utah, however, now requires shed hunters to complete an "ethics course" before they hunt. Upon completion, they receive a permit that they must produce if stopped by a conservation officer while carrying antlers. Without the permit, they face fines.

Some states, like Colorado and Wyoming, prohibit shed collection in certain areas for a specific time period (Jan. 1 to April 30 in those two states).

Most states prohibit the collection of antlers from skulls unless hunters can prove, like with a hunting tag, that they legally killed the animal. Otherwise, it could be considered poaching.

Several states prohibit the use of "antler traps," devices designed to snare and pull off a deer's antlers.

Check Your State's Rules

Shed hunting sounds like a great way to get exercise while engaging in a modest treasure hunt. Keep in mind, though, that it's hard to get rich as a shed hunter and that you might hike all day without finding a single shed. So, while you might be able to make a few bucks, it's best to focus on the health benefits.

And be sure to check on what the laws are in your state. You want your activity to be legal. And you want to do what is best for the deer.

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