It’s T-minus one hour to showtime, and the boys huddle around hot cocoa, strategizing.
Keep your eyes to the ground. Spread out, 10 to 20 feet apart. Head up to the high ridges.
“Basically, just zigzag and look in unexpected areas,” Austin Moore, 12, says. “The antlers don’t sit down. It’s very rare for them to fall where the points are down, so usually the points are out.”
“Look for a little white tip sticking above the sagebrush, or something that looks like a tree branch,” his father, Ian Moore adds.
Moore has participated in the annual Boy Scout antler pickup on the National Elk Refuge for about 20 years, first as a Scout and now with his son’s Troop 67. He spends the whole year looking forward to sharing the special experience with Austin.
“We talk about it all year long,” Moore said. “All winter. It’s our highlight for summer, kicking it off.”
Decades ago, when antler poaching became a disturbance to the refuge’s wildlife and habitat, the National Elk Refuge enlisted the help of the Jackson District Boy Scouts to help collect the antlers. A special-use permit was issued to the Scouts in 1966. The Boy Scouts help the refuge prevent the antlers from damaging their equipment, like truck and ATV wheels, spokeswoman Lori Iverson said.
After initial staff inspections, sending the Scouts out to scour the remaining terrain provides the refuge with the equivalent of hiring an additional full-time staff member.
“The day the Scouts come out to help us pick up antlers serves a great community service purpose,” Iverson said.
On Saturday’s unseasonably warm morning refuge staff assigned each troop a location on the north end of the refuge, where most elk spent the winter. Then 159 Scouts dispersed to scour the land for sheds.
Some scouts were in uniform, while others, like 11-year-old Paedon Hare, opted for other outdoor wear. Paedon also came equipped with a shovel in case he needed to dig an antler out of snow, as well as rope to tie antlers around his waist and backpack.
When Hare spotted a few dark points sticking up in the air in the grass, he took off running, despite the other antlers weighing him down. Once he had it, he counted the points: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.
“That’s a pretty good one,” Hare assessed. “Might sell for around 30 or more.”
“It has blood on it!” Austin Moore said. “That’s pretty fresh.”
Despite concerns that the antlers would be few and far between due to the mild winter, it was a bountiful year, and truck beds overflowed with antlers. Joey Selleck, 12, said he collected a total of 26 this year with friend Shane Zimmerman, compared with just five last year. Joey’s haul this year even included the crown jewel: an intact, rotting head with both antlers attached.
“It was cool,” he said, “but it was smelly.”
It’s the only place in the country where the Scouts get such an opportunity, and they appreciate it and take the responsibility seriously.
“The memories that have been created here — when you talk to Scouts who have gone and become Eagles and come back — what they want to talk about or one of their most important memories is the day they spent on the Refuge out gathering antler,” said Gary Edington, vice chairman for the Jackson District central committee.
But they don’t take it too seriously. Though the Scouts are on a mission, there’s also time to have silly fun and enjoy being outdoors.
“You must be one with elkness to find their antlers,” Austin said, explaining his methods, holding a pair up to his temples.
The antler pickup is only the start of the Boy Scouts’ partnership with the refuge. The Scouts and Scout leaders contribute around 2,000 hours each year to sorting, bundling and weighing the found sheds. It culminates in the antler auction on Town Square for ElkFest on May 19. Three-quarters of the proceeds from the auction is returned to the Elk Refuge for habitat enhancement projects, while the remaining 25 percent goes to the Jackson District Boy Scouts.
GALLERY: Antler addiction
On April 28, Boy Scouts from Jackson packs and troops spread out across the National Elk Refuge to gather antlers for the upcoming ElkFest auction on May 19. Proceeds from selling bundles of sheds will help fund conservation programs and feeding operations on the refuge.
On May 1, shed hunters from across the country gathered in the middle of the night to collect antlers on the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Wyoming shed laws prohibit the collection of antlers or horns from January 1 to April 30, making May 1 the first official day of the hunt. This year's snow made sheds harder to spot, but some hunters still found success.