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Volunteer Rangers Work To Rein In Antler Poachers

Troy Capps found deer antlers in central Oregon's backcountry. Capps is a co-founder of Oregon Shed Hunters, a group that promotes ethical shed hunting.
Courtney Flatt
Northwest Public Radio
Troy Capps found deer antlers in central Oregon's backcountry. Capps is a co-founder of Oregon Shed Hunters, a group that promotes ethical shed hunting.

The trick to looking for antlers in the wild — if you're going about it ethically — is to keep your eyes to the ground.

"You're trying to just find something that looks out of the ordinary," Rob Tanner says.

Tanner and his brother-in-law Troy Capps are hiking around juniper trees and bitterbrush in the high-desert terrain of central Oregon. They're looking for antlers that were shed by deer or elk, otherwise known as shed hunting.

"It's just an adrenaline rush," Tanner says. "It's like, 'Oh, you know, this could be the one.' "

They're seeing hoof tracks and bushes that have been nibbled by deer. Capps spots something on the ground. But these are signs of people, not deer.

It's not the first time they've seen this, and it's got them fuming. To protect animals and their habitat, motorized vehicles are barred from this area in winter and early spring.

"That's a four-wheeler," Capps says. "They're probably out here running around, and that's — that's wrong."

Demand for antlers as rustic décor is huge, and now it's threatening deer and elk in the Pacific Northwest.

In the wild, stress and natural factors cause deer and elk to shed antlers from time to time. For some people, like Capps and Tanner, collecting them is fun.

But others break the law; they don't wait for antlers to fall. To get at the prized racks, they harass or kill animals.

Capps and Tanner started Oregon Shed Hunters 10 years ago to promote ethical shed hunting. They say that legit shed hunters don't cut fences, don't destroy habitat and don't harass animals to get them to drop their antlers.

But it happens. And that's where Richard Mann comes in. He's a wildlife enforcement captain with the state of Washington. He says people sometimes jump the gun.

They go into closed areas and collect shed antlers in winter right before elk naturally shed their antlers. It's also when elk are at their most vulnerable and hungry, and sometimes sick.

"People are running these elk while they're really in poor condition physically," he says. "[the antlers] may not drop dead on site, but some of them do, and once they get off, they never recover from that kind of stress."

In Washington, people caught trespassing can be fined up to $1,000. But antler racks can sell for up to $35 per pound. A set from a trophy animal — the kind most likely to end up on a wall somewhere — can bring in thousands.

The volunteer group Eyes In The Woods helps law enforcement catch people lured by the potentially big pay day. The group is setting up cameras to spot trespassers in Central Washington's Oak Creek Wildlife Area.

The team secures cameras to bear boxes, screw on an antenna and strap the boxes to trees. Then they wait.

So far this season, four people have been nabbed. Trespassers will sneak into protected areas and stockpile antlers. Then they come back the night before antler season begins.

In the morning they walk out with their antlers and try to blend in with the law-abiding shed hunters.

"It's kind of suspicious when you see somebody coming out with 10 or 12 antlers at 9 o'clock in the morning," says Eyes In The Woods co-founder Kyle Winton.

The night before it opens to the public, Winton and his volunteers roam the preserve in search of poachers. They radio-in updates on their patrols.

By the time the gates open in the morning, queues of cars, horses and people stream in. Many waited a sleepless night so they could go in first.

In the afternoon, shed hunters of all ages show off their prizes. Seven-year-old Bobbi Cline found an antler, pretty close to the gate, that's almost as big as her.

"I'm holding an elk rack that we found," she says. "We found it in the bushes."

Her parents say that if the family collects enough antlers, someday they'd like to make a chandelier.

But how soon they're able to do that may depend on the success of wildlife officials and volunteers in stamping out antler poaching.

Copyright 2021 Northwest Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Northwest Public Broadcasting.