Because early spring is an especially stressful time for wildlife, Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers are reminding shed antler collectors that pressuring elk and mule deer during this time of the year can create very stressful conditions for big game herds.
Many people begin their search for antlers at the same time that deer and elk are most vulnerable to starvation, and managers are concerned that careless or aggressive collecting can severely stress the wintering wildlife, leading to increased mortality.
“By late February deer and elk are just hanging on and waiting for their natural food sources to green-up,” said Area Wildlife Manager Bill de Vergie. “Any unnecessary strenuous activity at this time of year can deplete their fat stores which can lead to higher mortality, especially in calves and fawns.”
The growth of antlers is one of nature’s more magnificent wildlife displays. Male elk, mule deer and moose grow large racks over the summer in preparation for rutting activity in the fall. The large displays not only attract females, they are also used to joust with other males as they compete for mates.
When the rutting behavior ends and winter conditions set-in, survival becomes wildlife’s priority. The harsh weather forces elk and deer to migrate to lower-elevation winter range in search of food, which is often scarce and not very nutritious.
By late winter and into early spring, the ungulates depend on fat stores almost exclusively, and it is at this time that bucks and bulls shed their heavy antlers in order to preserve energy.
“If you think about it in human terms, you could say that during the late spring, summer and fall, they eat cereal, but during late winter and into early spring, all that is left to eat is the cereal box,” said Education Coordinator Kathleen Tadvick.
In addition to concerns about mortality, human activity can drive wintering deer and elk onto private property where they may cause damage to haystacks or other agriculture products.
“Even a small herd can do significant damage,” continued de Vergie. “Elk are smart and when they are pressured and stressed they often enter private lands as they look for food and shelter, causing financial losses to landowners.”
Although some people sell the sheds they find, shed gathering has become an increasingly popular social activity for families and groups of collectors. Enthusiasts typically fan out on public lands either on foot, horseback, or motorized vehicles like ATVs, often searching deep into deer and elk winter range.
Excessive foot and horseback activity is a concern to wildlife managers, but they are more concerned about motorized traffic – especially ATVs.
“ATVs are a convenient way to travel deep into remote areas quickly, but because they are noisier and faster, people on these machines need to be especially cautious to avoid pressuring wildlife,” said Northwest Regional Manager Ron Velarde. “We ask people to follow the law, and be responsible and ethical when searching for sheds – whether on foot, on a horse, or on a motorized vehicle.”
Wildlife managers advise that the slower pace of hunting sheds on foot or horseback typically yield better results. People on motorized vehicles often miss sheds while searching on their fast moving ATV’s.
Another concern for wildlife managers are the dogs that people often bring along on their shed hunts. Dog owners are reminded that in the presence of wildlife, it is common for even the most domesticated pets to revert quickly to their primitive instincts, potentially injuring and stressing deer and elk.
Several states currently allow shed collecting, but require that the collector first purchase a permit. Permits are not currently required in Colorado; however, in the Gunnison Basin, where antler shed collecting is popular, there are two regulations in place to prevent disturbance of animals on public lands in big game management units 54, 55, 551, 66 and 67. Collection of shed antlers is prohibited on public lands within those units from Jan. 1 through March 14. From March 15 through May 15, shed antler collection is prohibited from legal sunset until 10 a.m. Collectors should consult sunset tables.
In addition, collectors should be aware that various local, state and federal laws are always enforced, and irresponsible shed hunters can face fines for harassing wildlife, trespassing onto private lands, or operating a motorized vehicle where they are forbidden. If you plan to operate a motorized vehicle on public lands, it is strongly recommended to check with the Bureau of Land Management for the latest regulations.
Wildlife officers will enforce laws to ensure wildlife populations continue to remain healthy, and encourage collectors to be ethical. Responsible behavior will give collectors, hunters and wildlife watchers the opportunity to enjoy Colorado’s wildlife for years to come.
If anyone sees wildlife harassment or other illegal activity, they are asked to contact their local Colorado Parks and Wildlife office.