Every spring I head to the foothills and mountains in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to hunt for shed antlers. Shed hunting, as it’s called, is best described as an Easter egg hunt for adults. Every year ungulates that include male elk, deer, and moose go through a growth cycle that results in shedding their existing antlers and growing new ones in the summer.
Moose are generally the first to shed their antlers, then deer, then elk, although there is a lot of overlap. New antlers grow during the summer. They’re covered with a fuzzy layer called velvet, pictured in this photograph.
In the fall, the animals rub the antlers off (often this process results in scratches you can see on the trunks of trees), and antlers start to resemble the dark brown bones we are used to seeing, such as in the above photograph. The antlers can grow in a typical way, but they can also be genetically deformed and grow in all sorts of different ways. During the rut when males compete against each other, parts of, or even sometimes the whole antler, can be broken off and damaged.
Winter is a struggle for wildlife. “Winter kill” is common, especially in the harsher northern parts of the country, and aggressive shed hunting and scouting during December, January, February, and early March is generally discouraged to avoid pressuring animals. Accidentally pushing an animal, like this mule deer pictured above, higher into the snowy mountains could mean the difference between life and death. This doesn't mean you should stay out of the woods completely during this time. If you go, practice awareness of all animals while out exploring and to try your best to avoid them when encountered.
Hiking through the woods off trail isn't the same as hiking on a trail. After 10 miles struggling across countless ridges, drainages, sage brush, creek beds, and snow banks, a trail starts to seem like a highway. Having the right gear is essential, and this year I decided to give the Oboz Bridger 10” Insulated boots a try.
The first thing I was impressed with was the stiffness of the ankle support. If you're hiking a lot of miles on steep off trail terrain, such as side-hilling a south facing slope, the more support you can provide your ankles the better. If your ankles are constantly buckling with every step you take, they're going to be weakened very quickly. I am also very impressed with the waterproofing. I've abused these boots on 15-mile days through miles of post hole snow and waterlogged creek beds. I combine them with a pair of waterproof gaiters that stop just below my knee, and I'm unstoppable. I've hiked a few hundred off trail miles this season, and they barely show any wear and tear.
Luck, Skill, Knowledge
Shed hunting is a mixture of luck, skill, and knowledge of the animals' movements. The first skill that gets better with every trip is hiking with your head up and searching the terrain. Most people don't realize how much time we spend looking down when hiking a regular summer trail into the mountains. You might look up a few times, but mostly you're watching your feet while moving. Hop off the trail and it becomes much harder to do this. Stumbling over random stumps and rocks are a regular occurrence. There is a delicate balance of scoping out your next hiking line about 15 feet in front of you, and then searching the terrain as you attempt it. The better you get, the harder it is to miss a shed antler like the fresh four-point mule deer pictured above. I was about 20 feet away and almost dismissed the two tines sticking out of the snow. This shed was found April 10.
Gaining knowledge of the animals' movements is a lot harder to learn by just reading about one man's experiences in his small part of the world. What the animals do in my area can be completely different just a few hundred miles away, let alone a few states or countries away. In Montana, the brutal winters make it hard to find anything early in the spring, and it also isn't fair to the animals to be pushing them all over the place when it can mean life or death for them.
I typically start in early March by looking for moose or whitetail deer sheds since there is a high chance of many fresh sheds already on the ground like the ones pictured above. This also keeps me out of elk country during a time when the snow is just starting to let up, and many elk are desperate for fresh grass and don't need to be pressured by me. It really just takes time in the back country in your own areas to really start to understand where they are and what they do. Looking and keeping track of signs like fresh track, scat, and rubs is also essential.
By early April, shed hunting is in full swing in this part of America. The first few days that really begin to melt the snow in the upper elevations means elk and mule deer sheds are now accessible and hitting the ground.
The rest of the photographs shown are a collection of elk and mule deer sheds that I have found. All of the photos are taken without moving the antlers.