Pat Tenney led a crew that hiked east over the National Elk Refuge foothills Wednesday morning, and members strung out 14 people wide looking for points telling of antlers sticking up through the sagebrush.
The team of Bridger-Teton National Forest employees — firefighters, engineers and some randoms — wasn’t used to this gig. But COVID-19 put the kibosh on the usual Boy Scout antler pickup, when kids gather sheds to raise funds for the Scouts and the refuge. Cris Dippel, the refuge’s deputy manager, told his federal government neighbors before they set out that he appreciated the assistance. The crew sweeping the foothills outsized the refuge’s full-time staff.
“Part of the reason you’re here is because we didn’t get the Boy Scouts out here,” Dippel said. “They would have normally covered this whole area for us.”
By early afternoon, several dozen antlers had been plucked off the landscape, removing an attractant that reliably causes people to trespass onto the refuge every May 1.
The western Wyoming antler rush is different this year, and not just because it’s happening amid a global pandemic — there are regulatory changes, too. The town of Jackson has asked shed hunters to stay home. Those who do arrive from out of state will be violating an unenforceable recommendation from Gov. Mark Gordon, which has asked people crossing into Wyoming before May 8 to self-quarantine for 14 days.
“We’re still asking visitors to postpone vacation travel to Wyoming at this time,” the governor said in a press conference last Friday. “We remain concerned about the travel of potentially infected individuals to our state.”
Authorities like Jackson Police Chief Todd Smith are planning for a crowd, though it’s tough to say if the 800 to 1,000 or so shed hunters who normally come will actually show up.
“You can’t stop them from coming,” Smith said. “There’s no order that prevents that.”
Some of the shed hunters drawn here are in the commercial antler business, he said, and this is their livelihood. If they do arrive, it’ll be one of the first major influxes of visitors to Jackson Hole after six weeks of very minimal tourism.
The police department is asking shed hunters to stage at the Teton County fairgrounds, so that they have the least interaction possible with residents. They’re giving them a carrot, too: Vehicles at the fairgrounds will be issued a number and admitted onto Refuge Road in that order. The caravan will be escorted onto Refuge Road at 6 a.m. Friday, and the numbered vehicles will get dibs before anyone trying to enter from elsewhere in town.
The shed hunting rules and access times shifted this year, both because of COVID-19 and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department bumping the legal start time of the season from midnight April 30 to noon on May 1. As a result, there’s a 12-hour period when people can legally hike and ride horses onto the Bridger-Teton National Forest, but not touch the antlers that brought them there.
The Refuge Road opening was pushed back from midnight until 6 a.m., because the refuge wasn’t expecting the normal law enforcement detail. But Grand Teton National Park came to the rescue, and Dippel said he’ll have eight officers helping with patrol of the boundary.
Game and Fish also changed the opening of its elk feedgrounds to 8 a.m.
To review: The Bridger-Teton National Forest will open at midnight April 30; the Refuge Road opens at 6 a.m. Friday; Wyoming Game and Fish elk feedgrounds open at 8 a.m. Friday; and the actual onset of legal shed hunting will be at noon Friday.
In recent weeks, Game and Fish warden Kyle Lash has heard from a lot of shed hunters still interested in coming and also seeking clarity about the regulations.
“I might be pushing 100 phone calls,” Lash said, “and that’s not even including the calls that have gone to the office.”
Even folks who travel to Jackson for shed hunting can’t be cited for hiking up onto Bridger-Teton between midnight and noon, Lash said, but they will be crossways with the law if they are found “locating, stockpiling or possessing” an antler. Leaving GPS waypoints at antler locations is a citable offense, he said. Sitting by one and waiting for noon to strike is not.
“If somebody wants to sit down or have lunch by an antler,” Lash said, ”they wouldn’t be getting in any trouble by us.”
Lash asked that anyone who finds a “dead head” — a skull with antlers still attached — call it into the Game and Fish office so it can be tagged and legal. There will be someone at the office to dole out those tags from 1 to 5 p.m. on May 1, he said.