Earlier this week, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WGFD) announced a temporary closure of the state’s popular shed hunting season. The season, which was set to begin on May 1, is now postponed through May 15 on most designated shed hunting lands in the Cowboy State. The action is a response to a severe, prolonged winter that’s killing mule deer and pronghorn antelope at alarming rates.
“Big game animals have experienced a tough winter and are highly vulnerable to human-caused disturbances, such as being moved around by people on the landscape gathering antlers,” said Rick King, WGFD’s chief of wildlife. “The unnecessary use of energy and undue stress can increase mortality. Postponing the shed antler collection in some areas of the state will help minimize stress, protect big game, and increase their chance of survival.”
This year’s severe winter weather hit Wyoming’s mule deer and pronghorn herds particularly hard. And pronghorns in the Pinedale region weathered additional die-offs due to a rare outbreak of pneumonia-causing bacteria. Mule deer death rates in the Wyoming Range, which runs north to south along the state’s central-western edge, have now exceeded 50 percent, according the Lander-based WyoFile. As of mid-April 2023, half of all collared doe antelope in the famed Sublette Herd were dead. In response, game managers eliminated more than 10,000 antelope tags.
Wyoming Officials Weigh In
According to WGFD Director Bryan Nesvik, the newly-announced shed hunting postponement is an unprecedented move. “I’ve not seen this in my time and in the time that the Commission has had the ability to regulate shed antlers,” Nesvik said during an April 25 meeting of the Wyoming State Board of Land Commissioners (SBLC). “We are concerned that increased human activity on those places where animals are [wintering] right now would be detrimental.”
Teton County, in the northwest corner of Wyoming, is exempt from the delay because there are relatively few pronghorn and mule deer that winter there, the agency stated in its Tuesday press release. “The large influx of antler hunters who come to Teton County to collect antlers … requires a coordinated interagency effort to manage,” the release states. “After a meeting of all the partner agencies, it was decided to move forward with the standard opening at 6 a.m. on May 1 for Teton County.”
During the recent SBLC meeting, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon expressed concerns about the influx of out-of-state shed hunters that hits western Wyoming every spring. “I’ve been in the western part of the state at the opening of antlers season a couple of times, and it is a zoo out there,” Gordon told the board. “Everybody running as fast as they can trying to get antlers, a lot of Utah vehicles stacked at trailheads the night before.
There is some consideration about maybe trying to do some tighter restrictions on it. It’s not only challenging for the wildlife but it’s also very challenging for the people on the ground there—fist fights and other things as well.”
Back in February, Wyoming lawmakers passed a bill that gives resident shed hunters a head start over non-residents at the start of Spring seasons. The bill also declared that shed antlers dropped on public lands are the property of the state of Wyoming, thereby allowing WGFD more leeway when enforcing shed hunting-related rules. The three-day resident head start will go into effect in the spring of 2024.