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"Antler Scouts" Enter A Brave New Era

Julie Fustanio reports from Jackson Hole on the annual frenzy of gathering shed wildlife antlers, the covid effect and scouting bringing equality to girls

Thousands of bull elk gathering on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole every winter means thousands of shed antlers.  While there are some exceptions it is generally illegal for citizens to remove antlers, skulls and other natural items from national refuges and national parks.  Meanwhile, every spring, citizens go searching for antlers in national forests, BLM, state and private lands. Many are sold on the open market for everything from decorative trophies and rustic chandeliers to folk medicines allegedly able to cure maladies. Photo courtesy Lori Iverson/US Fish and Wildlife Service
Thousands of bull elk gathering on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole every winter means thousands of shed antlers. While there are some exceptions it is generally illegal for citizens to remove antlers, skulls and other natural items from national refuges and national parks. Meanwhile, every spring, citizens go searching for antlers in national forests, BLM, state and private lands. Many are sold on the open market for everything from decorative trophies and rustic chandeliers to folk medicines allegedly able to cure maladies. Photo courtesy Lori Iverson/US Fish and Wildlife Service

by Julie Fustanio

“The other Cub Scouts should be just over this hill,” I told my then six-year old son as I flexed my bicep to hike up the elk head—a trophy which I’ve since learned has to be registered with a game warden and paid for or it is considered poached.

Swinging another antler over my right shoulder, I didn’t want to admit I was lost. When we heard voices, we turned around, realizing we were heading 180 degrees away from our cars where the rest of the troop awaited.

“My wife wouldn’t have carried that,” Richard Reese, leader of the local Cub Scout troop said. I felt redeemed. That was 11 years ago.

Ever since I was a kid, the youngest of three girls, I’ve hustled to keep up. I was an athlete with fewer opportunities than the boys in my class. Relating to scouting, I always thought Brownies were lame. So, experiencing girls joining Boy Scouts on the National Elk Refuge this year for the first time since the tradition began 64 years ago made me think we’ve come a long way. 

Even though more than a decade had lapsed since I’d last participated, the mood at the sacred antler hunt was eerily similar. Cloudy with a drizzle of cold rain blowing sideways, the smell of wet sage and melting snow in the air as we looked up hills and down creek beds for pointy objects. 

I only found fallen aspen tree branches this time. But the excitement of the kids and parents scampering around on the uneven rocky soil was palpable. I watched; they found the motherlode. To those reading this who are unfamiliar, only male members of the deer (cervid) family—elk, deer, moose and caribou—grow antlers every year. And every year in winter those antlers are “shed,” i.e. they break away from the skull of the animal and are dropped typically on winter ranges where the animals go to escape deep snows in the mountains.
Jackson, Wyoming is noted for many reasons, including the arches made of elk antlers that adorn the four corners of the downtown square. in fact, Jackson Hole is synonymous with the historic conservation of Rocky Mountain elk as a species.  Photo courtesy Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce
Jackson, Wyoming is noted for many reasons, including the arches made of elk antlers that adorn the four corners of the downtown square. in fact, Jackson Hole is synonymous with the historic conservation of Rocky Mountain elk as a species. Photo courtesy Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce
After the antlers are shed, the process of growing antlers begins anew. Antlers—their shape, size, and configuration—reveal a lot about an animal’s age, it’s fitness and its genetic lineage. 

The National Elk Refuge, located in Jackson Hole, was founded in 1912 to help thousands of elk survive Rocky Mountain winters. Here, wapiti are controversially nourished with artificial feeding because human development elsewhere in Jackson Hole has destroyed crucial winter range and prevented elk from embarking on seasonal migrations between summer ranges in the high country and winter terrain at lower elevations. 

In recent years, the unnatural gathering of 10,000 or more elk on the Elk Refuge and an additional 12,000 or more at 22 other state-run elk feeding grounds, has been highly controversial because bunching animals together leaves them vulnerable to catching diseases, such as deadly Chronic Wasting Disease, brucellosis, and other maladies.

Still, seeing the massing of elk at the Elk Refuge each year is a wonder—and because there are so many bull elk it translates too to an abundance of shed antlers—thousands upon thousands of pounds’ worth that can be sold for money. Rather than allowing the public to engage in a free-for-all, the federal US Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the Elk Refuge, allows scouts to retrieve them and sell them at auction in downtown Jackson, Wyoming, near the famous elk antler arches. The money generated is used to fund wildlife projects on the refuge and other endeavors that benefit the community.
For generations, members of local Cub Scout troops in Jackson Hole would gather antlers every spring on the National Elk Refuge and then sell them at auction to raise funds for Refuge operations and support ongoing scouting operations. Since its beginning, Cub Scouts were solely the domain of boys with Brownies and Girl Scouts being the gender alternative. Today, scouting nationwide is arrayed under a common banner that brings both boys and girl together.  That includes participating in antler collection.  Photo courtesy Lori Iverson/US Fish and Wildlife Service
For generations, members of local Cub Scout troops in Jackson Hole would gather antlers every spring on the National Elk Refuge and then sell them at auction to raise funds for Refuge operations and support ongoing scouting operations. Since its beginning, Cub Scouts were solely the domain of boys with Brownies and Girl Scouts being the gender alternative. Today, scouting nationwide is arrayed under a common banner that brings both boys and girl together. That includes participating in antler collection. Photo courtesy Lori Iverson/US Fish and Wildlife Service
“I hope these kids grow up knowing how special this place is,” Mary Greenblatt, a mom and a wildlife biologist technician told me. “These kids are all naturalists. Just being in this environment, they learn so much. It helps create connection and win the battle of getting them off their screens and outdoors.” 

A Magical Tradition

Hunting for antlers on the 25,000-acre Elk Refuge is like skipping lines at Disney World. 

The Boy Scouts started collecting antlers in 1957 and the spring auction started in 1968. As part of the special use permit with the Elk Refuge the scouts can collect as many antlers as they want for their auction with agreement that 70 percent of the proceeds returns to the refuge. The other 30 percent goes toward national dues and troop activities. The refuge employees, who are the only other people legally allowed to pick up antlers on the refuge, contribute to the auction booty as well.
 
Last year, the refuge employees were disappointed that they had to respond to a government directive to call off the antler hunt.  “We always enjoy not just the service work aspect of coordinating with the scouts but the education component and inspiring this next generation,” Natalie Fath, the Elk Refuge visitor center manager and volunteer coordinator, explained.

Every year the scramble goes on, and sometimes a cat and mouse game between antler hunters and law enforcement, in the search for large racks and even skulls of animals with antlers attached. Photo courtesy Julie Fustanio
Every year the scramble goes on, and sometimes a cat and mouse game between antler hunters and law enforcement, in the search for large racks and even skulls of animals with antlers attached. Photo courtesy Julie Fustanio
However, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Forest Service, which oversees the adjacent Bridger-Teton National Forest did not—or rather, could not— keep the antler-hunting public at bay. Curious to see what the scene would be, I grabbed a face mask and went out to check it out. May 1 is the official start of antler hunting in Wyoming’s national forests.

Despite the 2020 cancelation of the Boy Scout antler harvest and a plea from the local police to stay away because of the pandemic, more than 200 cars nonetheless piled onto the Elk Refuge Road, which runs parallel to US Highway 191 that passes through Grand Teton National Park and northward into Yellowstone. 

Local adults also came out to participate. They spotted a herd of bison charging in the distance as if they were spooked by rumble of the earth trembling from all of the traffic. 

In an effort to quell the fury, the Forest Service pushed back the time when the public would otherwise stage and then embark in a mad scramble to search for antlers. Trucks and trailers subsequently rolled in at 6am and antler hunters were required to sit on their finds for several hours before they were legally allowed to claim them. It was the first major influx of tourists since COVID-19 shuttered businesses across the nation six weeks earlier—and it was an indication of the huge crowds that would soon inundate public lands in the West.

Youthful antler hunters search for sheds in a dry creek bottom. Photo courtesy Julie Fustanio
Youthful antler hunters search for sheds in a dry creek bottom. Photo courtesy Julie Fustanio
Antler hunters traveled all the way across country for the novelty of the event. The behavior and conduct was not nearly as innocent as those involving the scouts. Profit seekers cursed, spit and complained about the COVID-19 pandemic regulations before they hoisted their (free) loot in their trucks stacking the antlers on top of each other and pulling down their tailgates to celebrate. There wasn’t a mask in sight. 

This year on May 1, the rules reverted back, and the trucks and trailers lined up at midnight. Still, the conflicting chaos and magic of the antler hunt resumed. 

The Scouts Antler Auction, which was held online last year with several of the largest matching sets of antlers not reaching the minimum bid, is usually held just prior to Memorial Day. But it has been postponed until October 2 this year because of COVID-19. 

By that time, organizers of local scouting hope it will be safe to hold a live auction, amid huge human throngs, in the Jackson Town Square. And with the leftover antlers from last year, the profits should be robust. Gross sales of antlers have been running between $170,000 and $200,000, with $19,000 going to the scouts.

Fun Facts About Antlers: 

As noted above, antlers are one the best signs of a bull’s health and prowess during the fall mating season, when another influx of tourists comes to hear them bugle and hunters pursue them for meat and trophies. Bulls’ antlers grow back bigger by the inch every year, the number of tines helping to determine their age. Spring sunlight causes the bulls to produce more testosterone which triggers the regeneration process. It takes just three to four months to grow a new set of antlers, making them one of the fastest growing living tissues.  

A scout hoists just half an antler set that can generate money at auction. Photo courtesy Julie Fustanio
A scout hoists just half an antler set that can generate money at auction. Photo courtesy Julie Fustanio
In order to grow their huge racks, elk must eat more than 110 pounds of calcium each season. Biologists have begun to study elk antlers to see if they can mimic their rapid cell growth for use in modern medicine. While traditional Chinese healers have been grinding antlers into powder for centuries to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. They also consider the powder an aphrodisiac.

Change Of The Guard

In their heyday, antlers sold for as much as $100 a pound and they still can for exceptional matching sets. Exporters would bring containers to the Jackson Hole town square to pick them up after the auction and ship them east. In the early 2000s sales declined partly because the Chinese began buying caribou. Now the bidders are mostly collectors and artisans. Chris Dipple, a guide at the National Elk Refuge, says basic antlers usually go from $17 a pound and up.  He estimates the scouts collected more than 500 pounds a day on their two days of hunting this year.

I’ve been witnessing the event for years. And given what has happened in the last couple of years, some might ask: Is nothing sacred anymore? Would Americans really violate a long-established tradition that has benefited scouts and taught sound lessons of hard work and community service in order to line their own pockets?

Moreover, we are also seeing a historic transition within scouting, with both boys and girls being given prominent standing. 

“Initially, five to 10 years ago, I don’t know if I would have been thrilled with the idea,” says Cliff Kirkpatrick, Headwaters District Committee Chairman for the newly named “Scouts BSA.” 

Kirkpatrick and his wife, Loretta, have helped organize the elk antler hunt and auction since 1988. “One of the things that helped change my attitude was the study at Tufts University about the benefits of our program. With all the troubles that scouting has faced it is certainly an opportunity to breathe fresh blood into the scouting organization. I wish our daughter had been involved.” 
Three cheers for girls in the Equality State. Changes in the times, changes in scouting, have opened opportunities for girls, including being able to take part in the annual antler harvest on the Elk Refuge. Photo courtesy Mindy Kim-Miller
Three cheers for girls in the Equality State. Changes in the times, changes in scouting, have opened opportunities for girls, including being able to take part in the annual antler harvest on the Elk Refuge. Photo courtesy Mindy Kim-Miller
In 2015, the same year the Boy Scouts ended the prohibition on gay leaders, a study out of Tufts University showed that Cub Scouts became “significantly more cheerful, helpful, kind, obedient, trustworthy and hopeful about their future.” 

Since February 2019 when the scouts officially changed their name and began allowing girls to reach the highest levels, the Jackson area had one lone scout. This year there were enough for a troop. 

Mindy Kim-Miller, den mother for Troop 268—the first group of girls—is the first female scout master in Wyoming and the only Asian-American scout master in the Grand Teton Council (including Idaho). She scouted with her son for nine years and her daughter, Silvia, always wanted to tag along. She didn’t hear one complaint from the boys.

That said, demand for local Boy Scouts has dwindled since the Mormon church, one of the biggest supporters of the Headwaters chapter, stopped using the scouts for its youth programs. “Our council was 95 percent LDS,” said Kirkpatrick. “They decided to withdrawal a few years ago amidst the controversy, and then all of this change happened.”

Kim-Miller says it’s fitting that equality has reached scouting. “The momentum is really important so we are not left out of the summer camps and all of the special events that used to be for boys only. With a critical number, there is nothing that can hold us back from doing what the boys do.” 
Bull elk lose their mighty racks every spring and as warm weather arrives new antlers begin rapidly sprouting from their heads, going through a "velvet" phase and growing large and hardened by the time autumn arrives.  Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
Bull elk lose their mighty racks every spring and as warm weather arrives new antlers begin rapidly sprouting from their heads, going through a "velvet" phase and growing large and hardened by the time autumn arrives. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS

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Julie Fustanio
About Julie Fustanio

Julie Fustanio is a freelance writer, yogi, ski instructor in Jackson Hole and a mom of two teenagers who migrated west from Rochester, NY in 2010. Her proudest accomplishments include having Jane Goodall walk her dog, playing Edwin McCain’s guitar, getting her middle school soccer team to join her in her 365 day handstand challenge and starting TEDxJacksonHole. She is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Boston College. She resides in Victor, ID with her son, Ridge and her dog, Kashi.
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