September 22, 2010
By Les Davenport
Few renewable resources in the history of man have exhibited the kind of diverse use that we've seen with the antlers and horns of various animals. Since the earliest times, man has utilized deer antlers as weapons, tools, trade goods, religious items, decorations, medicines and calcium supplements. Today, of course, the popularity of whitetail antlers is stronger than ever, particularly in the U.S.
You might even call it a form of worship, as there are hundreds of antler collectors nationwide who don't even hunt. Yet these devoted collectors are as passionate about the antlers they acquire and admire as the most diehard big-buck hunter is about the deer they hunt and harvest. Why? Because antlers, like fingerprints, are unique -- no two are identical. Perhaps it is this unique quality, along with the fact that antlers are revered as one of nature's finest works of art, that has progressively escalated their value to new heights in recent years.
EARLY MAN AND ANTLERS
Paleontologists speculate that Homo erectus, the earliest prehistoric man who walked upright, started out as a scavenger and eventually learned to hunt. He opted first to use the simplest of weapons for survival; he fought and hunted with rocks and sticks. It's also thought that some of the initial projectile attachments to spears in the early Pleistocene Epoch (1.8 million to 10,000 years ago) period were bone splinters and antler tips. The need for a sharp point to thrust into thick-skinned prey like ice-age mammoths and remain impaled for further muscle and organ damage eventually led to the creation of barbed chert, flint and obsidian projectiles. Many of these ancient artifacts can still be found across North America today.
The most notable of all American Indian bows was made from antlers, usually elk, by the Northern Plains tribes. This design was necessitated by the lack of regional bow woods such as ash, chokecherry, serviceberry, wild plum and crabapple. Short sections of whitetail and mule deer antler tines were also woven in a draped pattern and worn on the chest as defensive breastplate for deflecting enemy arrows. Very few of these antler bows and breastplates were salvaged for museum display.
North American Indians made tools and weapons by grinding glacial stone and knapping various dense rocks with the butt of an antler. The ancient art of fragmenting chert, flint and obsidian with antler is still practiced by today's renaissance "knappers." Most knappers prefer the antler pedicel of a moose for best results.
CRAFTERS, GO WEST FOR SHED ANTLERS!
If you happen to be an antler lover who plans to head out West on vacation, there are some must-see destinations that you'll no doubt want to visit. Be sure to stop at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for the annual Boy Scout Antler Auction, held the third Saturday in May. Literally thousands of elk, mule deer and moose antlers, along with some whitetail antlers, are sold at public auction and by street vendors. Most are purchased by crafters.
For viewing or buying beautiful antler furniture, don't miss stopping at Wild West Designs in Jackson Hole (208-523-1010) or in Idaho Falls, Idaho (208-523-8800). Owner Linda Rumsey is one of the foremost antler brokers in the U.S. She buys, sells and exports several tons of shed antlers every year, mainly to Asia. Most are ground into powder for medicine additives, aphrodisiacs and calcium supplements.
Linda also employs craft specialists who create some of the most breathtaking handmade antler chandeliers that money can buy. Her retail showroom offers home furnishings from many of the renowned antler-crafters of this century. I almost hyperventilated when Linda showed me a metal building that measured 50x30x10 feet that was crammed full of antlers from front to back and from top to bottom.
The largest annual antler buying-and-selling event in the country takes place in Dubois, Wyoming, starting the third Monday of May and lasting for five days. This "Antler Rendezvous" is attended by most of the nation's biggest shed antler brokers. Here you'll find many dealers with whitetail antlers (for details on this event, call 307-455-2556).
Here's what you can expect to pay for antlers at these locations: Fresh elk drops retail for about $8 to $12 per pound. Moose "paddles" in good shape are approximately $10 to $15 per pound. First-year mule deer sheds go for an average of $8 to $15 per pound. (Large antlers are more per pound than small ones.) Most antler crafters from the East and Midwest buy their sheds from Western brokers because of accessibility.
All exceptional antlers, especially matched pairs, bring high-dollar amounts and are often purchased by taxidermists for mounting and resale. Though there are six times more whitetails than mule deer on this continent, bulk antler sales favor mule deer fourfold. Why this disparity? Whitetail sheds are tougher to come by!
A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK
Unlike mule deer and elk, whitetails spend most of their time living within a 1-square-mile area. This home range is usually forested with a mix of open terrain. Though whitetails can "yard up" in colder Northern regions, yarding is rare throughout most of this deer's favored habitat. And since they don't migrate, the antlers of whitetails become targets for hungry rodents of the forest and agricultural fields: mice, squirrels, porcupines and rabbits. Up to 1/2 of a whitetail antler cast in an oak forest in the Midwest can be consumed by calcium-craving squirrels in a three-day period.
Whitetail sheds are inherently dispersed more widely than those of mule deer or elk. For example, if one square mile of whitetail habitat holds 30 deer, of which eight are 2-year-old-plus bucks, 16 antlers will drop across that mile-square. With rodents consuming an estimated 40 percent, shed hunters are now searching for 10 antlers hidden within 27,878,400 square feet. Of those 10 antlers, any that fall in dense grass, corn stubble or in thickets may be mowed, disked or never found. It's a true needle-in-the-haystack pursuit that only persistent shed hunters succeed at.
Mule deer and elk characteristically migrate in large numbers from higher, forested ranges to lowland areas containing winter graze and browse. Consider, for example, a combined herd of mule deer and elk totaling 1,000 in a 40-square-mile range. If 25 percent of that number are 2-year-old-plus bucks and bulls, 500 antlers will generally drop in the one or two square miles where these animals winter.
Migrating mule deer and elk are easily patterned by ranchers and public-land shed hunters. This annual migration allows for a much higher shed recovery rate and almost no antler predation by rodents. Many Westerners supplement their incomes by selling antlers found in wintering areas and along migration routes.
WHAT ARE WHITETAIL SHEDS WORTH?
Whitetail drops that score 60 inches or less can be purchased in bulk for $12 to $15 per pound. These antlers are usually from bucks 3 1/2 years old and younger. For the same price, a buyer can purchase 70-inch mule deer drops in bulk. Though accessibility accounts for part of this difference, much of this disparity lies in the fact that mule deer score higher than whitetails. (The B&C minimum for a typical whitetail is 170 inches net. The B&C minimum for a typical mule deer is 195 inches net.)
"Beyond 60 inches, the cost of whitetail antlers soars upward very quickly," says Gary Knepp, a top whitetail antler broker from Newport, Pennsylvania.
A COMPLICATED BUSINESS
The accompanying value chart was compiled from Gary's extensive buying and selling experiences in recent years. The wide variance in the estimates represents the difference in eye-appeal for similar-scoring antlers.
"Mass, coloration, length and number of tines, region of origin, symmetry, rodent damage, history, net and gross score, and overall uniqueness affect these chart values," Gary explains. "Mass and the historical aspect of a shed or matched set of shed antlers are the two most prominent features that add value to top-end antlers."
A shed from a Minnesota buck known as "Big Mo" (short for "Big Monster") is a good example of these two monetary enhancements. Big Mo's right-side shed was found in February 1991. Later on, Big Mo was harvested in November '91 by Minnesota resident Cliff Estlie. The massive rack netted 234 inches non-typical. Gary purchased the shed and eventually the mounted buck.
The mount's estimated value is $30,000 to $35,000. By most standards, this is $15,000 to $20,000 more than most 235-inch-net non-typical mounts would sell for. Here's the difference: Big Mo's 26-point non-typical rack grossed 260 5/8 inches, but carried over 26 inches in deductions. Though non-symmetry hurts net score, it greatly bolsters a rack's "Wow!" factor and, therefore, ultimate value.
The same is true for sheds. Big Mo's previous-year right-side shed has an estimated value of $15,000-plus. Its five typical tines score 107 inches. There is no bigger 5-point shed antler in the world! Having a buck's history documented in a magazine article has also proved to notably increase value. (See Big Mo's story in the September 1992 issue.)
OTHER CONSIDERATIONS THAT CREATE VALUE
Here's another example of shed value boosted by antler mass. This example explains why antler characteristics could greatly affect the values listed in the chart. A 5-point Texas shed scoring 80 inches with 16 inches of mass can have 50 percent less worth than a 5-point shed from Saskatchewan scoring 80 inches that carries 22 inches of mass (mass is the sum of the four "H" measurements on a B&C score sheet). This is true even when the beam lengths are equal. So what's the difference?
Although the Texas antler would have an average of 1 1/2 inches more in tine length on each point, the enhancement of 1 1/2 inches added to each of four mass measurements would be much more important, and therefore valuable, to a prospective buyer. The difference in weight alone could be almost 2 pounds. To put this into prospective, think about this: Which would you rather catch -- a 26-inch bass weighing 8 pounds or a 24-inch bass weighing 10 pounds?
A 4-point shed is more valuable than a 5-point scoring the same. If both score 75 inches and carry identical mass, the 4-point may be worth three times the value of the 5-point. Fewer 4-point sheds reach this category, causing this price huge value difference. The 4-point would also have more impressive tine length.
THIEVES AMONG US!
Gary Knepp has brokered whitetail sheds and racks for more than 35 years. He is one of the few collectors of whitetail mounts that Bass Pro or Cabela's has not completely bought out.
"Shed collecting," Gary says, "unlike collecting big whitetail mounts, is growing by leaps and bounds. It's something everybody can enjoy at their own level."
So what are the negative influences created by this boom in antler value? Regrettably, the worth and prestige of shed antlers has caused an epidemic of trespassing and antler thievery. I tested this growing dilemma by planting eight large mule deer sheds on my Illinois farm to see if they'd be stolen. They were weather-cracked and only worth about $5 each. I set them two at a time in a winter wheat field, 50 and 100 yards off a road. When both disappeared, I planted two more. It took less than two weeks to lose all eight. This was an experiment only, and I had no intention of prosecuting trespassers.
Ironically, not once did I observe these antlers being taken from the field. The thief (or thieves) likely grabbed them after sundown or at a time when my wife and I were absent from the farm. Talk about effective baiting for a game warden! I often wonder if the culprits knew the sheds were from mule deer!
Trespassing in most states is considered a misdemeanor and averages less than a $100 fine. This low-risk, high-reward crime tempts average Joes who may not trespass under any other circumstance. There is an easy solution to this problem. Place signs on your property that read: "Trespassers and Antler Hunters will be Prosecuted! This Property has Video Satellite Surveillance!" This may not stop the most hardened of antler thieves, but it will stop a high percentage of this growing problem. (For specialty signs, call Voss Signs at 1-800-473-0698).
It's a felony in most national parks to remove antlers. The penalties are legislated by the Lacy Act. Two decades ago, Yellowstone Park was being pillaged so badly by money-hungry antler thieves that park rangers started marking shed antlers with invisible ink. They later visited local antler buyers and black-lighted their recent purchases. They promptly tracked down the sellers of Yellowstone shed antlers and prosecuted them to the fullest. Thieves soon started carrying their own black-lights, which caused park rangers to change strategies and begin implanting radio chips in sheds. Thereafter, federal agents showed up on the doorsteps of the thieves before they could collect their illegal bounty.
A GROWING HOBBY
On the positive side, hunting for shed antlers is great fun and exercise during the off season. It is also a good way of finding out which bucks made it through the season and where they likely camped out near the end of bow season. It never ceases to amaze me how many huge sheds are found every year, yet the bucks carrying those antlers are never seen. This is without doubt one of the primary reasons that trophy whitetails are the most sought-after big game animals in the world.