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Annual antler hunt begins May 15

May 11, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder


It's almost time for Montana's annual scavenger hunt, Game Range style.

When the calendar turns to May 15th, the race begins to find the biggest and best shed antlers on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range.

This is no Carolina ice cream social. We're talking about prizes that may weight 30 pounds apiece, scattered across some 22,000 acres. On steep slopes and miles from the nearest open road. Guarded by grizzly bears.

Think about the latter while considering whether to strap on the old miner's lamp this year, or wait for daylight.

This year might be a fair one for finding good elk sheds on the Game Range. In our helicopter census last January, we accounted for 38 bulls that we judged to be at least 3 years old, and another 26 raghorns. Most of these probably dropped their antlers around the first week of April. In some years past, quite a few elk had already scattered off the Game Range by early April, but it seemed like they held pretty tight this year.

So, there may be 128 branched elk antlers awaiting your arrival on May 15th. That's only 172 acres per antler.

Better bring comfortable shoes and a lunch!

At least your kids may be happy. With a count of 73 last January, we had one of our better years for spikes. You'll still cover an average of 151 acres per spike antler, but spikes are more likely to be found in flat, open grasslands where you can cover lots of ground.

Want to leave the crowds behind? Focus on mule deer sheds instead. Last January, we observed 31 mature bucks from the helicopter, only a few days or weeks before they shed their antlers in the same general area. That area is the burned forest and shrubfields along Sperry Grade, either side of the county line.

It's a good tip, but only if you're prepared to hike over several square miles of steep terrain.

White-tailed deer shed their antlers in December and January. While in normal or harsh winters whitetails are bunched up on the west side of the Game Range, last winter was mild and deer were scattered everywhere.

That means those big whitetail sheds are scattered everywhere, too.

With such poor odds of finding the really big antlers, it can be important to get an early start, before too many antlers are removed by the competition.

This is precisely the kind of thinking that gets some people in trouble. The Game Range is closed to all unauthorized use until May 15th, not because it gives everyone a fair chance at collecting elk and deer antlers, but because it is biologically important to give elk and deer an adequate period to feed on spring greenup and recover from the long winter. So, FWP managers and wardens take a dim view of people who would illegally enter the Game Range earlyand potentially displace our elk and deer populationsfor so trifling a reason as to stash or remove antlers.

Still, antler hunting can be a fun way to enjoy a spring day on the Game Range, as long as people follow the rules. One of the most important of which is for motorized vehicles to remain only on established, open roads. Leave the motorcycle or 4-wheeler at home unless you plan to putter around on the open dirt roads. Plan to walk or ride your horse, and park your vehicle and trailer close to the road.

If you miss May 15th, you may miss a few antlers, but you haven't missed the Game Range. It remains open to public access through November 10th each year. And, if you keep your eyes peeled, you'll see that the thundering hordes don't find every antler on May 15th.

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