The parking lot at the Lee Kay Shooting Range was full, but not with cars. Between the yellow paint stripes, staff from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources placed piles of antlers and skulls, sometimes just parts of skulls, some of them covered in fur, others bleached white. All for sale to the highest bidder.
There are three types of people here this Monday in late April: people looking to buy in bulk, people looking to buy something in particular and people just looking.
Mollie Miller and Jake Steiner are the latter. They saw an ad online and came from Bountiful to check it out.
“It has been weird,” Steiner said. “There are a few just whole heads of animals over there, just rotting.” Miller said she saw a bison head with its tongue still in its mouth.
They ogled the lots for sale, the mounted, taxidermied deer heads and salted cougar pelts, and marveled at the piles of rusted metal animal traps. Steiner joked the traps could be really useful to beef up your home’s “perimeter defense.”
For some at the DWR’s animal parts option, the event is a spectacle. For others, it’s big business.
This year, the division took in more than $300,000, Captain Chad Bettridge said. The mounted head of an illegally killed trophy mule deer called “The Rabbi” went for $23,350, over $13,000 more than the next highest items: a deer mount and a deer skull with velvet antlers that both sold for $9,700. The furry bison head, sold alongside two skulls in more advanced stages of decay, sold for $210.
Bettridge said the money from this auction was “considerably more” than the $100,000 they made last time the DWR held one, in 2016. This year, the DWR also had more inventory than before, because it postponed the 2020 auction due to COVID-19. While they had a similar number of lots, this year they piled more antlers or animal parts per lot, upping the value. The auction normally is held every four years.
But there’s another reason the division might have made so much more money this time — the animal parts they’re selling are in high demand and supply hasn’t kept up.
The business of antler buying
The people who planned to spend money at the auction typically carried around a notepad or a clipboard, scrawling notes to themselves about which lots looked good to them.
Lynn Steele, from Orem, was one of them. He was looking for antlers thick enough “to make things out of them.”
That size, he said, was anything he could snuggly wrap his thumb and forefinger around, or bigger. Steele, whose wife is a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, planned to send whatever he bought to the tribe in New York, so they could be carved into jewelry.
“I’ve found some beautiful [antlers] here,” he said, “but the guys who are weighing them, they’re paying so much a pound. … So bidding is going to be pretty tough to get one you want.”
Richard Dorchuck, known by some as “antlerman,” and his business partner loaded a pile of antlers — mismatched sheds or poached racks of various sizes and quality — onto their wheeled scale, weighed them and dumped them back onto the asphalt like Jenga blocks.
Then, they’d move about 6 feet to the next pile and start over. They, and a handful of others, did this for hours.
“If the game wardens would use a certified scale, we could just all just be going by the number. They could write it right there,” he said, indicating the white paper tag affixed to all the lots with a thin piece of wire.
Alas, they do not.
Dorchuck has been in the business of buying and selling antlers for nearly 30 years. This Monday, I brought a trailer with him. He was looking for “volume” and hoping to spend $40,000 to $60,000 to supply Idaho-based Bone-A-Fide Antlers with material to cut down into dog chews.
“Everybody wants the top end of the antler that doesn’t weigh anything, and the dogs like it, compared to the dense, heavy end of the antler. So if you’re not careful,” he said, “you’re going to lose your butt in a hurry selling from pound to piece.”
Dorchuck ultimately spent about $30,000 at the auction. He said prices are higher than he’s ever seen, jumping from a high of $16-17 a pound to $20-$24 per pound. Antlerbuyers.com estimated slightly lower per pound rates, but still conceded “antler prices have hit all time highs.”
The value of antlers are up, in part, because there are fewer animals around producing these antlers, which are a renewable resource. Or, in the case of elk, they may be hiding out on private land.
Utah deer, elk and moose antlers drop annually, following the fall mating season, and regrow them in the spring.
With climate change drying the environment and extreme drought conditions, mule deer numbers have decreased in Utah since a high in 2014, according to a recent study by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The DWR also said that developments encroaching on the deer’s territory could impact their population, which is currently about 100,000 short of the more than 400,000 goal.
The Utah Wildlife Board voted Thursday to reduce deer hunting permits in 2022 because there’s “more demand for deer hunting in Utah than we have the supply for,” DWR Big Game Coordinator Covy Jones said in a statement.
The rise of the dog chew market has also increased the incentive for people to try to find and sell sheds.
Previously, someone in the antler business had two options: selling to craftspeople making rustic furniture or wholesaling to an Asian market where antlers are used in traditional remedies.
Now, Dorchuck said, dog chews are where the money is at. A $20 dog chew at a pet store, weighing likely less than a pound, was probably purchased for about $10. That piece came from a larger antler, cut up into pieces, and purchased for perhaps $20 a pound, maybe in a lot of other antlers.
How to go on an ‘adult Easter egg hunt’
Dorchuck said he figures shed hunting is about the only hobby someone can take up and make enough money to compensate for fuel.
It’s like an “adult Easter egg hunt,” he said, and something he’s been doing since he was a child. It’s fun and gets people into the outdoors, but he said it’s also highly competitive. ”When you go out and do it yourself, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to hurry. … We’ve got to go further and higher and look harder,” he said, chuckling.
The season to pick up shed antlers in Utah runs from Feb. 1 through April 15. Those looking for sheds must take a free online antler gathering ethics course and carry the completion certificate with them while out collecting, according to the DWR.
Bettridge, with the DWR, said one can differentiate between a shed antler and one that’s been poached by looking at the burr, the knobby bit at the end of the antler, previously attached to the animal’s head.
If it’s flat and smooth, it’s likely the animal’s antlers were sawed off. To keep and sell those animals legally, you would need to have a tag. If the end is bulbous, protruding from the burr like an oval broach, it’s likely to shed and OK to take — and sell — at the finder’s discretion.
If the antlers are still attached to a skull, you also can’t legally take them, according to the DWR, because the animal may have been poached.
People should not move a skull with antlers or disturb the area, the division advises, and it asks finders to instead take photos from multiple angles, pinpoint where the animal is (preferably with a GPS coordinates) and report the find to the state. If a conservation officer later determines the animal died of natural causes, a finder may be allowed to keep it.
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