DAYTON — When the snows of winter begin to settle in the Bighorn Mountains, resident elk, deer and moose turn into snowbirds — of sorts.
Obviously there are no RVs or lemonades by the poolside, but there is a search for sunny slopes and good food. Big game animals — particularly elk — in the Bighorn Mountains find warmer climes and less frozen forage in four wildlife habitat management areas along the base of the mountains. Sheridan County is home to two of these: the Amsden Creek near Dayton and the Kerns northwest of Parkman.
“The animals come on their own. They know where the Amsden and Kerns are at,” Dayton Game Warden Dustin Shorma said.
Come springtime, the animals trek back into the mountains to set up their summer home. And like any long-term visitor, they tend to leave a few treasures behind. Elk antlers, ranging in size from 1 to 40 pounds for a large, 6-point set, lie scattered about the wildlife areas, waiting to be gathered by “shed” hunters when the areas open to human presence.
Amsden opened Wednesday, and Kerns will open June 1.
This year, elk antlers are fetching $10 per pound, according to Tom Hurley, who was out hunting before sunrise Wednesday. Hurley found four raghorns, which are smaller antlers shed by young bulls, with a total weight of 20-25 pounds.
He sells to a horn buyer out of Cody but said horn buyers can be found on the Internet, too.
Mostly, Hurley gets out just for fun and to get back in shape for hunting season, re-training his eyes to find what he’s looking for.
“You get better at it. The more you do it, the easier it comes,” he said. “All it takes is ambition…and water, a backpack and binoculars.”
And some good walking shoes. Or a good horse or 4-wheeler.
“You walk. Walk, walk, walk, walk,” shed hunter Gary Laya said about his method of finding antlers each spring. Laya has shed hunted for more than 30 years. He sells some and keeps some to make tables and other handicrafts. But for Laya, it’s the thrill of the hunt that gets him up at 4 a.m. to trek six miles uphill, scanning the ground for that gleaming white antler shed from a wintering elk.
“It’s just kind of a footrace up there. The first one gets the worm, you know. It’s a thrill if you see one,” Laya said.
Dana Prehemo moved to Ranchester last fall and was shed hunting elk antlers for his first time Wednesday. He used to hunt moose antlers in New Hampshire but said the process was different. Moose sheds are found in thick groves of trees, whereas elk antlers are often found on open hillsides — especially south-facing slopes where the snow melts first.
A builder by trade, Prehemo is starting a log cabin business and looks forward to crafting chandeliers and other decorative items from the antlers he finds to add more local flair to his cabins. He now has two to start with after a successful hunt on the Amsden.
It is believed that deer, elk and moose shed their antlers each year for a few reasons: practicality, protection and…vanity.
“As they proceed into the winter when their bodies are more stressed, it is a way to lose that extra burden,” said Seth Roseberry, Game and Fish Habitat Manager. “It lightens their pack, gives them more energy.”
Also, elk grow larger antlers each spring, and a larger set is a better set. It offers more protection and strength during the fall rut when bulls are fighting over cow elk. And those cows, they find those larger antlers quite attractive.
Humans do, too.
So whether it’s the thrill of the hunt, or the pride of having a mount on the wall, or the extra spending money, it’s a good time to get out to the Amsden or Kerns to join the ranks of the shed hunters.
Management areas useful for more than just hunting
SHERIDAN — Many people think of the Amsden and Kerns Wildlife Habitat Management Areas as places where they can shoot an elk. But they are much more than that, Dayton Game Warden Dustin Shorma said.
“Most importantly, it’s a place for elk to relax during the winter and leave landowners alone,” Shorma said.
The areas are also open all summer for antler hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, bird watching, horseback riding and wildflower viewing.
“Both places are absolutely beautiful,” Shorma said.
Shorma and Game and Fish Habitat Manager Seth Roseberry monitor the areas to make sure forage is healthy, fences are fixed and roads are passable. They also monitor herd populations. If higher than objective, they increase hunting licenses. If low, the habitat may need improvement.
Amsden Creek Wildlife Habitat Management Area
Location: Two miles north of Dayton. Take Tongue Canyon Road to Amsden Creek Road. Two gates with parking areas.
Size: 3,600 acres, with six miles of fence
Elk herd: 350-360 per winter
Open: Typically May 1 – Nov. 15
Kerns Wildlife Habitat Management Area
Location: Take Pass Creek Road out of Parkman, past Slack School. Go 10 miles to reach the gate.
Size: 4,500 acres, with 12 miles of fence
Elk herd: 900-920 per winter
Open: June 1 – Nov. 15