Montanans don’t need excuses to be out in the hills and woods in the spring, but a benefit of early exploring is finding antlers shed by elk and deer over the winter. It’s like a ramped-up Easter egg hunt complete with the adrenalin rush.
Antlers give us a glimpse of the animals that reside in our favorite places, particularly since a recently shed specimen indicates the animal at least made it through hunting season and could be in better shape this year. Unique tine formations make individuals recognizable, which is particularly fun if you spend a lot of time in an area, and gives us an idea of where these animals reside in the harshest time of the year.
Plus, antler hunting is something the entire family can do together as soon as the weather permits. From toddlers to teenagers, there’s a thrill seeing an antler poking up through the debris of last year’s vegetation that never fades.
A couple of years ago we were hiking with friends in the Sun Canyon area outside of Augusta, in part of the area included in the newly added conservation management area of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act where it will be protected from commercial and industrial development. This a veritable playground for anyone who loves to be outdoors and the kids enjoyed finding remnants of the winter – old bones and bits of fur – along with signs of spring like the caterpillars grouping in the brush. When Lane, the oldest of the bunch, found an antler, the game was on. All the boys were keen to find one of their own.
Bushwhacking through an aspen grove turned out to be fortuitous for John, our youngest who was 6 at the time. Crawling and twisting along areas best suited for small people like him, he noticed tines poking up through the mud. He found a dandy whitetail shed. His excitement was palpable and it was the prize of the day.
Truthfully, I don’t know what it is about antlers that makes a heart race. But for as long as I’ve been picking them up, it’s hard not to have that initial rush when a glimpse of tines emerges from grass or mud. And it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a tiny deer antler or an impressive elk, we run to them for fear they’ll vanish before our eyes.
The annual formation and shedding of antlers is mind-boggling. Antlers are true bone primarily made up of calcium and phosphorus, originating from the bud on the head of a buck or bull called the pedicle. Starting in the spring, the bone grows continuously and is somewhat spongy and filled with nerves and blood vessels. By the end of the summer, the hormones trigger the body to basically fill in the antler with calcium, making it durable enough to clash with other males. In the winter, days shorten, triggering a drop in hormones, which causes the antlers to fall off.
Antlers certainly are found about anywhere. We’ve found them on open hillsides, and a friend of mine even had a tractor tire punctured by one on his ranch. For the most part when we’re out specifically looking for antlers, we consider places where some sort of jarring motion might have been enough to cause the antler to dislodge. This might be a fence line or stream the deer (or elk) jump over, or in the case of John’s antler, the deer walked through very dense aspens and it came off. Chances are, most adults wouldn’t have seen it since we were all too preoccupied twisting and turning our way through the trees, but since John was so close to the ground, it was right in front of him.
There are areas where picking up antlers is prohibited such as national parks. I’ve found exceptional sheds in Glacier during my travels, and even though it’s a big no-no to collect them, it was special to know they were there and leave them for someone else to “discover.” State wildlife areas like the Sun River Game Range are often closed during late winter to prevent disturbing the wildlife that are struggling to survive there. Those who don’t respect these regulations steal from all of us.
Antlers are fascinating tokens of the wild creatures we love makes the early season hikes a special time to be outdoors. With eyes scanning the horizon, or looking around the coulees and stream beds, it’s simply a joy to be outside soaking in springtime once again. And all the better if we bring home a bony treasure.