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Ethics of Shed Season

by Dana R. Rogers

Years ago, I hardly knew anyone who went afield specifically in search of shed antlers. Over the past several years though, the pastime has gotten much more popular.

I know a few pretty serious and dedicated shed freaks who spend many days each winter and into the early spring combing fields, trails and thickets in search of ‘brown gold’. Still, others just like to take a few hours on a nice sunny weekend day in late winter and get out with their family in search of an antler or two. Many who shed hunt just love to get out and exercise to check out the great outdoors and take in the scenery.

There are several great reasons to get out and do some shed hunting. It helps you stay active and improve your fitness level. I love going on walks on a nice, late winter day to look for antlers, but my primary reason is to scout for the upcoming hunts. Finding a nice shed can provide critical information on where to focus future scouting time. It’s also a great way to pre-scout areas you haven’t ever hunted and have always wanted to check out.

Individual animals shed at different times, depending on testosterone levels, photoperiod and sometimes stress and injuries. Unfortunately, many hunters take to the field to gather antlers during the worst time of the year for the animals. Wildlife is extremely vulnerable this time of year, particularly this winter. Food is scarce, cover is minimal and they’re dealing with the effects of rut stress and often severe winter weather. 

Being conscious of these stressors, we can and should minimize any adverse impacts to the wildlife. Now that game seasons are over, some early shedding has taken place. I’d caution though, that aggressively pushing deer or elk from their wintering areas has the potential to have a significant negative impact on their ability to survive the rest of the winter. Pushing them now will cause them to burn calories they need to make it through and grow that next set of antlers or in the case of females the unborn fawns or calves they carry.

Please don’t chase or harass an animal in hope of getting a shed to drop, It doesn’t work and it’s illegal. In some areas, stress on wildlife and popularity of shed hunting has gotten so intense that laws and regulations specifically address shed hunting have been enacted. The more often we bump and stress these animals, the less likely they are to successfully survive and thrive the following season.

For instance in many areas of the West, they have actually closed shed hunting. In many areas of Colorado you can’t enter those areas until March 14. Montana has a May 15 noon opener on some public wintering areas and Wyoming has restricted shed hunting in many sensitive public tracts until April 30. Here in the Dakotas our terrain and amount of public lands isn’t the same, but in my opinion, we need to be concerned with the welfare of wildlife above all during the most stressful period of the year.

These laws are in effect to protect wildlife. I love to shed hunt and spend several hours each winter walking trails and feeding areas in search of shed antlers. I limit the areas to travel and feeding areas only, and never scavenge through known bedding thickets until I know the vast majority of the deer in the area have already cast their antlers.

I do this in two ways. I use several trail cameras that will confirm that very few, if any bucks are left holding their antlers. I only check them every two weeks or so, and typically at night when deer are gone from the area and feeding.

The second is to glass from a distance with good binoculars or a spotting scope to avoid excessive stress to wildlife. Once my observation and trail cameras have shown that most of the bucks have shed, then and only then do I gather friends and family to walk those critical wintering yards. In central South Dakota, I’ve typically found that this is from March 1 to March 15, depending on the severity of the winter and stress levels on the local herd.

If you’re planning to go shed hunting, you’ll need to know that many areas actually have restrictions on the removal of any plant or artifact, to include animal bones. In South Dakota, you’re currently allowed to shed hunt in National Forest lands like the Black Hills and Custer National Forest, but you’re prohibited from picking them up in parks like Wind Cave or Jewell National monument.

There are also many nature areas where it’s not legal to remove any shed antlers. Prior to heading out for a public land shed hunt, I encourage you to call your local Conservation Officer and check into the legality.

Last March, the SD Game, Fish and Parks sent out an email reminding people that sheds were illegal to remove from state-owned lands, including game production areas. That law seemed more intended to prevent plants, minerals or Indian artifacts from being removed. The law on state-owned land has since been amended to remove the word “antler” but it still lists animal carcasses, so check and be aware.

According to Andy Alban of GFP the new rule just went into effect the end of December and applies to all state parks, including Custer State Park.

The South Dakota Administrative rule 41:03:01:05: Destruction or removal of natural or cultural features prohibited... or destroy, damage, or remove skulls or other parts of animal carcass located on lands owned or leased by the department. 

Another point to highlight is that Walk-In areas are not open to shed hunting. Those lands are leased from private landowners for specific seasons, dates and access stipulations apply. Please educate yourself in order to avoid any legal entanglements.

In North Dakota, there are no specific regulations governing shed hunting. All rules that apply to private and public land apply, just as if it were a regular hunting season. It should be noted that on many of the public lands, WMAs, WPAs, etc., there are restrictions on snowmobile and ATV use.

The final group of fringe of shed hunters who have sprouted up in the West and now the Midwest and Great Plains are commercial shed hunters. Antler buying is not new, but money paid for large and unique antlers or dead skulls has sprouted a cottage industry.

A few people travel to known big buck areas and either break the laws on National Forests, Parks or trespass on private lands managed for wildlife. These individuals don’t care when, where or how they get what they seek.

Shed antlers are being sold at a per lb. rate, that at last check is in the $6-$8 range, but larger antlers and high scoring skulls can carry a much more valuable price to those who choose that route.

I love going shed hunting, and use several weekends each February and March to spend time with my wife, son and friends hiking in search of a few. If we wish to continue to be able to collect sheds without much restriction, it’s incumbent on us to police ourselves and think about the effects it could potentially have on the wildlife we all love.

Not only do sportsmen have the responsibility to act ethically while hunting and fishing, we also have ethical responsibilities to uphold even when shed hunting. If we think about that and act accordingly, hopefully we can keep our opportunity to shed hunt open.