Photo Courtesy: Sarah Ingledue If you’re a dedicated sportsman, and if you’ve come out of hunting season with an empty freezer, shed antlers can be the runners’ up award: they’re a kind of participation trophy. They’re faint echoes of last fall’s hunt, proof that a given bull made it through the season, that he was zigging even while we were zagging. They’re also the end of a story that we may have only caught in glimpses, a flash through the trees, an illusion ducking over the horizon. Every shed antler feels like a privileged glimpse behind the curtain. “Wish I’d seen this guy during hunting season.” But antlers are also a business. And as it turns out, a pretty big one. If you’re a shed hunter, if every spring you’re out combing the south-facing slopes for that glimpse of white and brown, they’re $13 or $14 a pound worth of gas in the truck. At today’s (highly variable) prices, the biggest antler will flirt with a few hundred bucks. And if you’re an antler buyer cruising the auctions or advertising in the local Mini-Nickel, a big antler is maybe $10 or $15 worth of profit. Yet over the past few decades for a few dedicated enthusiasts, antler hunting has evolved from beer-money hobby to a thriving business. And like any lucrative enterprise, the antler market also has its dark side. It’s a complicated business, made more so by the emotional reaction we all have when faced with a nice set of antlers.
“These days it’s all about dog chews,” says antler buyer Don Schaufler. “That’s where the market is.”
If you’re curious about the business of antlers, about the finances that surround them, you could do worse than starting your investigation in Ennis, Montana. That’s where Schaufler has his warehouses, where’s he’s been in the antler business since 1974, gathering up bone and shipping it out, keeping a weather eye on the market, buying low and selling high. In the early years, according to Schaufler, back in the 1970s, the market was largely driven by East Asia, by the folk-wisdom belief in the general curative powers of antlers.
“I’d always been an antique picker,” Schaufler says. “I’d be out cruising for antiques, and I just started buying antlers. Every garage in Montana had a rack. After a while I found a guy, Johnny Wang, who’d give me $4 a pound. I’d load up a box, ship them down to Johnny. Meanwhile, one of Johnny’s buyers, he found me. So I started loading up these 26-foot U-Hauls and driving them down to San Francisco. I started putting ads in the paper. ‘I’m buying antlers.’ And that was about all it took. Here they come.”
Ennis has a full-time population of around 900 earnest souls. Within this tiny community, Schaufler now keeps five large warehouses stacked floor to ceiling with bone. Cement floors and metal walls, even the smallest of these warehouses could still hold a pretty good pick-up game of basketball. Behind the warehouses, a fleet of utility trailers are all either full of antlers or on their way to being filled. He and his wife also own a Main Street business, Antler Designs, that sells furniture and art pieces made from his antler collections. When it comes to sheds, Schaufler’s the equivalent of Amazon. He’s the prominent waystation, the middle-man between bone picker and buyer. Thousands of antlers sit stacked neatly to the rafters, briefly at rest in Ennis before moving on. White and chalky or fresh and brown, near-worthless Cs or unchipped grade-As, elk, whitetail and mule deer, caribou and moose, each has its background, its story.
And because Schaufler is a hunter himself, he keeps more than a few trophy racks, as well as the horns of sheep, antelope and goat. In the process of trying to get a handle on the market, I spoke to half a dozen antler buyers, and found that to be a trait common to most all of them. Hunters first and businessmen second, they have a hard time letting go of the biggest racks. Schaufler used to be the owner of a traveling collection of mule deer heads, since sold to Cabela’s, but he has retained ownership of the current world record non-typical mule deer, the “Broder Buck,” for which he paid a reported $225,000. Those antlers were still attached to a head, though
(see “The Unfallen” on page 80).
For the last five years, the market has shifted away from Eastern Asia and toward helping America’s 70 million dogs keep their teeth clean and stress low as they indulge in the classic pastime of gnawing a bone. In Schaufler’s primary warehouse, there’s a small room off to one side where a full-time employee sits hunched over a band saw, slicing out chew-sized sections. If you go to chewy.com or PetSmart, you’ll find antler chews going for around $2.30 an ounce for the bigger sections, which is nearly $37 per pound. Schaufler says he tries to make a profit of about $.50 a pound on his antlers. Assuming that he sells his antlers to chewy.com (or the equivalent) for, say, $15 a pound, that’s more than a 100 percent markup for antler chew retailers.
In some ways, though, it seems somehow a diminishment, a reduction of an extraordinary artifact, to have these antlers quite literally tossed to the dogs. I left Schaufler’s feeling of two minds. The free market is at work, sure, and it’s not as if elk and deer are still using the things. And yet, these beautiful artifacts are reduced to dog chews. Surely, there must be a better use for them?
Roughly 2,000 years ago, in the Hunan Province of China, a few words got scribbled on a scroll and dropped into a tomb. “Velvet antlers are good for what ails you,” it said, or some such. These days, you can buy velvet antler wafers at street markets in Beijing. You can buy powders and pills and drops online. You can even buy skin cream if you have an itch. In Chinese medicine, antlers harvested while in velvet have been used as a possible treatment for anemia, arthritis, insomnia, amnesia, male impotence and female infertility. There are those who believe it can increase muscle mass and strength, decrease body fat, help with endurance and recovery time after injury, reduce joint inflammation and improve kidney and liver function. I myself am a skeptic. Maybe it cures everything short of gullibility. Researching this article, however, I did find a study that showed a benefit in growth and bone development in lab rats, and another that found that a certain Japanese concoction of garlic, ginseng, and velvet antler had a slight but demonstrable effect on erectile dysfunction. (I’m resisting the obvious horn-and-bone puns.) Otherwise, the peer-reviewed literature is pretty quiet.
An exception: velvet antler contains the hormone IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1), which is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list. According to the WADA, IGF-1 can “enhance the production of lean muscle as well as aid in recovery time.” That being said, Chris Kilham, founder of Medicine Hunter, Inc., (www.medicinehunter.com), has his doubts.
“About a year ago, I looked over pretty much every antler product I could find on the web, and I looked at potencies of IGF-1,” says Kilham. “Of the ones that stated potencies, the super highest ones on the market, the potencies were so low that they couldn’t have done anything anyway. So what I think is that in the market today we don’t really have antler products that are particularly effective, or if we do, they’re effective sometimes and not others. We don’t know at this point what really constitutes the ones that are working great. From an IGF-1 standpoint, there’s just not enough in there.”
Even so, there is serious demand for antler velvet. According to the North American Elk Breeders Association, there are approximately 1,000 elk farms in the United States, farming more than 100,000 head of elk, with another 53,000 captive elk in Canada. As of about 10 years ago, New Zealand was producing something like 450 tons of velvet antler a year, mostly from red deer. China was producing around 400 tons, Russia 80 tons, and the U.S. and Canada about 20 tons each. That’s 970 tons, or 1,940,000 pounds. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, velvet was going for as much as $150 a pound, but at the current rate of $35 per pound, by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, that makes for a (conservative) global trade of $67,900,000. Not a ton of money, maybe, but not chickenfeed, either.
Although somebody, somewhere is probably using antlers as chickenfeed.
In the Livingston, Montana, of my youth, and within the circles that I frequented—elk hunters, outfitters, guides, taxidermists—everybody pretty much knew who the shed poachers were. After all, we were just north of Yellowstone National Park. This was in the 1980s, when prices were good, but not such that anyone was ever going to retire off horn hunting. There was a frivolousness about it that you don’t find today, a sense of having a lark.
“Dave Whathisname, he takes pack mules out of Tom Miner every spring. Spends a week in the Park, comes back loaded down with antlers.” A roll of the eyes. “Then he’s off to Jackpot for the weekend.”
Still, in 1982 one guy had drowned when he flipped his raft on the Yellowstone while attempting to heist $500 worth of horn out of the Park under the cover of darkness.
Fast forward 30-some years. Shed hunters have their own TV shows, social media sites and message boards. There are people, even now, arguing about the best way to train a dog to hunt sheds—not waterfowl or pheasants or mountain lions…shed antlers. Bryan Golie, Region Four Criminal Investigator for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, is a 21-year veteran of fish and game law enforcement. “When I started, I’d hardly see anyone out shed hunting,” he says. “Now it’s almost like opening day of hunting season. There’s just a tremendous amount of pressure.”
He’s watched shed poachers jump a fence right in front of him, then sprint for the nearest stand of trees, hiding their faces as they ran. “And some guys, they’ll hike eight miles into a wildlife management area or onto a piece of private ground for the chance to poach a shed,” says Golie. “The personality that does that type of stuff, it’s the same kind of poacher that we deal with in hunting season. They’re going to get the biggest and best, at whatever cost. Which is sad because there are so many good people out there who enjoy the sport of antler hunting. They’ll take their family out shed hunting, it’s a good family sport. But it’s becoming tainted by these folks who are so focused on the business of it, the pressure to get the biggest and the best.”
Within Montana’s Region Four there are several wildlife management areas, including Blackleaf, Sun River and Judith, that serve as crucial winter ranges for elk and deer. All are closed to the public from December 1 through May 14. These areas open for antler gathering at noon on May 15.
“On the Sun River Game Range, they’ll get in line a couple days in advance,” says Golie. “We’ll have two or three miles of vehicles lining up at the gate. When the gate opens it’s a huge rush, it’s just a huge Easter egg hunt.” The penalty for poaching a shed on a wildlife management area owned and administered by the state is a fine of $585 and a loss of hunting and fishing privileges for two years. “But it’s not the money that deters people,” Golie said. “It’s always the loss of privileges that slows them down.”
Golie continues to see an increase in violations on the state game ranges. “We’re seeing more and more activity in these closed areas, these wintering range areas. And it’s a great shame. There are other people who are following the law, who take pride in following the law, but then you have some guy sneaking in a week early to take the opportunity away from them. It’s very frustrating.”
Wildlife pay the price, too. As elk try to survive the final innings of winter, shed hunters can and do push bulls through cover and over fences to try and knock off their antlers. For animals living on ever-dwindling reserves of body fat, it can be a death sentence.
Ground antler has a distinctive odor about it. When you fire up the Dremel and dig into a belt-buckle-sized coronet, slice off a section with a table saw, there’s the whine of the world’s largest mosquito, and then a smell rather like ammonia, or maybe solder, like electricity burning into insulation. If you’re an artist, that haze in the air is a byproduct of the necessary carving-away, a reduction of the finely-pored medium into something other than itself.
There are only a few large antler auctions in the United States where artisans can procure antlers in bulk. The most well-known, the Jackson Hole “ElkFest,” has been an annual event for 48 years. On the Saturday before Memorial Day, that year’s crop of sheds picked up off the National Elk Refuge is packaged into lots around the town square. In 2015, according to Lori Iverson from the Elk Refuge, there were 13,968 pounds of antlers gathered and sold off to the highest bidders.
“The average price per pound over the last 10 years has been around $11,” says Iverson. “This last year we got $17 per pound. Like any market, antler sales fluctuate from year to year.”
Seventy-five percent of the proceeds go back to the Refuge, where they help pay for feed and maintenance, but 25 percent goes to the local Boy Scouts, who lend a hand with antler gathering and more importantly, help sort and catalogue the antlers, and arrange them for sale.
In 2015, the largest customer of the antler auction was Wild West Designs, based out of Idaho but with a store in Jackson. Linda Rumsey, co-owner with her husband, told me, “We have two businesses that deal with antlers. Wild West Designs is the art side, the chandeliers, the furniture, and so on, and our other one is an export business called Little Bighorn Antler Company. Part of the reason we buy so much at the Jackson antler auction, we have a store up there that we’ve had going on 14 years, and so we buy off of the National Elk Refuge in order to make chandeliers. A lot of people like the idea that they’re getting the shed antler from the Elk Refuge.”
Last year, through their export business, the Rumseys shipped 225,000 pounds to Asia. “But we pick out the best, the premium, to use for art products. Chandeliers, but also floor lamps, wall sconces, table lamps, candelabras, end tables, coffee tables. You name it. Our little candelabras go from $85, and our largest chandelier is right under $10,000. We call it the Grand Slam. It’s probably 7’ x 7’, and it’s got elk, moose, caribou and deer antler in it.”
Weighing in around 175 pounds, the Grand Slam puts the value of the antler at around $57 per pound, if you’re keeping track.
Beginning just after last year’s tired racks are dropped in the spring, a big bull elk can generate as much as an inch of new antler growth in a single day. One imagines that you could almost hear the pedicles creaking on a quiet day. Before drying to bone, antlers are cartilaginous eruptions of nerves and hair, lipids and proteins. They are complicated crowns of sexual display, adapted in part to actually curtail fighting among males. At a glance, bulls know who shouldn’t be messed with, who’s the biggest dog in the junkyard. Biologist Valerius Geist called them “visual dominance-rank systems.” But when display is not enough, antlers are the ungulate equivalent of elbows and knees in a parking lot brawl. They are aspects of self-defense, something to tilt toward the ground when the wolves start to circle. Most of all, however, antlers are simply themselves—extraordinary products of natural selection, addressing a complicated set of needs within a species. They are grown fresh each year, and yet somehow retain the memory of their previous years’ shape. An injury to velvet and the anomalies that result—the nontypical warp and bulge and drop—will usually reproduce itself in subsequent years. Think about that.
For most hunters, antlers are what we aspire toward, sure, but once they’re on the ground, they also tangentially afford us a sense of community. Walking into a restaurant, a bar, a neighbor’s house—seeing the heads on the wall—you can be reassured that you are among your people, that you share at least this much: The common language of antlers.
They are, in this respect, so much more than a business. They are gifts.
Allen Morris Jones lives in Montana with his wife and young son. He is the author of Last Year’s River and A Quiet Place of Violence. He has recently returned to work as editor of Big Sky Journal.