Finding shed antlers with preservation in mind

Douglas County’s bucks have shed their antlers this year, and most, if not all of the elk bulls have done the same. The process of finding shed antlers usually takes a lot of time and hiking distance, but the prospect of fresh sheds keeps some antler enthusiasts obsessed with sheds for months on end. Learning how to find cervid headgear can be difficult, but by applying a few of the right techniques, shed hunting can be more productive.

Shed hunters often lead their inexperienced partners right over a shed while peering through binoculars or scouting rub spots. Carefully observing the ground is more important than trying to envision every cervid’s path, but sometimes finding sheds is just a matter of luck. Any veteran shed hunter can attest to less experienced accomplices finding the best, and sometimes the only, shed on a particular hike.

A key factor for finding multiple sheds is hiking an area that has not been thoroughly accessed by humans. This is sometimes not possible. Groups of deer and herds of elk that can be observed from afar may spend most of their time on properties owned by persons who do not allow shed hunting on their land. Having family, friends, neighbors or acquaintances that allow shed hunting on their property is a sizable advantage.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reminded shed hunters in a 2016 online article that shed hunting is no excuse for trespassing, but more specifically that sheds found on private property belong to the property owner. Being clear about intentions while looking for sheds on permissible but private land is key to avoiding any social or legal entanglements.
Multiple use areas such as the North Bank Habitat Area (the Dunning Ranch), other easily accessible BLM land in Douglas County, and national forestry lands are often picked clean early in the season, and the deer antlers and elk sheds sought in these areas will continue to drop earlier in the season if people pressure the deer out of areas with their preferred food sources and bedding areas. Deer that are less pressured will tend to lose their antlers later into winter, but nutrient deficient or pressured deer can even lose their antlers as early as January, or in extreme cases, December.

According to an ODFW online article from 2015, “Wildlife biologists have real concerns about the sport’s impact on big game, especially when it’s not practiced responsibly. ‘Shed hunters and their dogs can pressure, stress and exclude deer from the very ground that was set aside to help them survive the winter,’” said Chase Brown, assistant district wildlife biologist in The Dalles.” It is important to not be greedy while shed hunting for the sake of the wildlife, the habitat, the future of both and the law.

Litter is a noticeable issue in numerous off-trail areas, especially in public-use areas. Beer cans hit with buckshot are a likely find on even a half-day hike on the Dunning Ranch. It is considerate and wise to devote a backpack compartment for trash when looking for shed antlers. Keeping areas free of garbage not only is the right thing to do, but it increases the odds of cervids visiting, feeding or bedding in a given area. The smartest deer and elk with the most impressive headgear tend to stay well away from signs of human activity. Areas littered with rub spots tend to have little or no human litter.

Finding deer and elk rubs can be exciting in its own right. A buck or bull will tend to use the same or very proximal spots for rubs for multiple years. However, both cervids make hundreds of rub spots in a given year. Considering the direction the deer or elk was headed on an animal trail to deduce if the left or right antler was rubbed can lead to more sheds.

Making note of the height of the rub can help to determine the species. Some bull elk can rub above nine feet from where they stand as they try to rub off velvet or knock off their headgear. Deer cannot reach this height and tend to rub smaller diameter trees and saplings about two to six feet from where they stand.

Antlers will almost always be on the ground, and they tend to have their points, or tines, sticking up. Cervid headgear can be tied up in finger-sized clusters of trees, downed trees, and in some rare instances, stuck in a large diameter tree, but they usually reside points up on the ground.

If antlers are found in a tree at a spot that is well off of the ground, you are in cougar country. It is advisable to pay close attention and choose a different location in such an instance.

Oregon State Police and ODFW continue to warn of the illegality of clipping off antlers from the skull and picking up skulls with the antlers attached, also known as a dead-heads, while shed hunting. Deer and elk skulls can lead to citations and greater legal penalties. Both clipped antlers and skulls split between the antlers require big game permits for possession or sale. It is most prudent to only pick up antlers that have been naturally shed, even if the rodents or coyotes have separated the antler at the pedicle (below the antler button and above the body of the skull). No one in their right mind wants to be mistaken for a poacher. Picking up antlers attached to skulls, or without a corresponding big game tag, can lead to legal penalties.

Oregon State Police has a division of officers dedicated to stopping poachers, and the agency has made recent finds of illegal kills via anonymous tips: “Past poaching problems led to the regulations. Skulls that are split have less value and are not eligible for record books. These regulations reduce the incentive for someone to kill animals on winter range or out of season, hide the skull, and go back months later and ‘find it.’”

Shed hunters possessing cervid skulls without big game tags could get lumped in with hardcore poachers in the eyes of the law. It is most prudent to leave these special finds as they are. If a law enforcement officer sees a person touching or moving a cervid skull in the woods, a citation is imminently liable.

For more information about the legality and ethics of shed hunting read ODFW’s online article “Shed hunt responsibly and legally” at
http://www.dfw.state.or.us/news/2016/03_march/031116.asp 

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