Volunteer Rangers Work To Rein In Antler Poachers

Volunteer Rangers Work To Rein In Antler Poachers

10:40am Jun 20, 2015
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.
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

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 2015 Northwest Public Radio. To see more, visit http://nwpr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Antlers are in high demand these days, not just as rustic decor, but for things like doggie chew bones. And that fuels a new threat to deer and elk in the Pacific Northwest. In the wild, stress and natural factors can cause the animals to shed antlers from time to time and some people collect them. But others see antlers as moneymaking opportunities and break the law. They don't wait for the antlers to fall. They harass or kill animals to get their prized racks. Courtney Flatt from Northwest Public Radio reports on the effort to stop this poaching.

COURTNEY FLATT, BYLINE: The trick to looking for antlers in the wild is to keep your eyes on the ground.

ROB TANNER: You're trying to just find something that looks out of the ordinary.

FLATT: Rob Tanner and his brother-in-law Troy Capps are hiking around juniper trees and bitterbrush in the high-desert terrain of Central Oregon. The men are looking for antlers that were shed by elk or deer. It's called shed hunting.

TANNER: It's just an adrenaline rush. It's like, oh, you know, this could be the one.

FLATT: They're seeing hoof tracks and bushes nibbled by deer.

TROY CAPPS: We're in the prime right here.

FLATT: 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.

CAPPS: That's a four-wheeler. I mean, they're probably out here, you know, running around and that's - that's wrong.

FLATT: Capps and Tanner started Oregon Shed Hunters 10 years ago to promote ethical shed hunting. They say legit shed hunters don't cut fences. They don't destroy habitat. They 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 in to closed areas and collect shed antlers early. This happens in the winter, right before elk naturally shed their antlers. It's also when elk are at their most vulnerable and hungry and sometimes sick.

RICHARD MANN: People are ruining these elk while they're really in poor condition physically. They may not drop dead on sight, but some of them do. Once they get off, they don't recover from that kind of stress.

FLATT: 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.

MANN: Everything's together.

FLATT: The volunteer group Eyes In The Woods helps law enforcement catch people lured by the potentially big payday. The group is setting up cameras to spot trespassers in Central Washington's Oak Creek Wildlife Area. Kyle Winton co-founded Eyes In The Woods.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ladder.

FLATT: The team secures cameras to bear boxes. They screw on antennas 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 law-abiding shed hunters.

KYLE WINTON: It's kind of suspicious when you see somebody coming out with 10 or 12 antlers at 9 o'clock in the morning.

FLATT: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I got a few people who went in early at the junction.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Let him go.

FLATT: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Just over the crest there...

FLATT: 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. It's almost as big as her.

BOBBI CLINE: I'm holding an elk rack that we found. We found it in the bushes.

FLATT: Her parents say that if the family collects enough antlers, someday they'd like to make a chandelier. How soon they're able to do that may depend on the success of wildlife officials and volunteers in stamping out antler poaching. For NPR News, I'm Courtney Flatt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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