Cop an antler, kill a grizzly: Human wants trump animal needs

Where to start? Perhaps with this question: In how many different ways can we take from animals? We take their lives and call it food, call it sport, call it fun…or tradition or clothing or pest control or management; they are a renewable resource, after all. If we allow them to live–at least for awhile–we take their freedom, their dignity, their right to a life without suffering. (Yes, you’re thinking factory farming, and rightly so, but let’s include even those dogs who live their lives at the end of a chain.) Even seemingly benign endeavors–picking up antlers shed by ungulates, for example–turn into something different when human appetites enter the mix.

Hunting shed antlers sounds benign enough–the critters drop ‘em, we cop ‘em. No one gets hurt. But it’s not always that simple; sometimes those exquisite antler chandeliers are purchased with blood–not that the buyer would necessarily know this. But that’s human nature for you–take something harmless, add money, competition, and ego and you’ve got a whole ‘nother animal.

Just a few days ago, three Montana grizzlies lost their lives due to shed hunters. Only one actually died–the four-year-old mom, who was naturally acting on her priority–defending her cubs from what looked like a threat. But the cubs, orphaned too young to survive, have lost their lives as wild bears and will likely go to zoos. “We’re relieved that everyone escaped without injury,” said a supervisor for the state management agency. The shooting was deemed justifiable self-defense.

The bear shooting occurred on a wildlife management area. Yes, this is indicative of how wildlife is managed–it’s a matter of priorities, largely for hunters. Set aside a “game” refuge so ungulates can survive the harsh winter unharassed (some refuges even feed the wild ones!); then, on opening day (May 15th on the Blackfoot-Clearwater area), open the gates to a hoard of 300 shed hunters who charge into the animals’ space, eyes on the prize, and take out a frightened mother griz. Collateral damage.

This comes on the heels of a couple of antler poaching cases on the same refuge, where as many as 50% of the antlers had been poached before the opening. Why? There’s money in them thar antlers! “While many people collect antler sheds for the novelty or outdoor experience, a matched set can bring $250 or more from collectors, taxidermists and furniture makers,” according to an article in the Missoulian. Others collect hundreds of pounds of antlers each year and supplement their incomes by $10,000-$15,000.

But there’s a darker side. Utah outlawed the possession of antlers still attached to the skull when “…conservation officers discovered people were shooting trophy animals on their winter range. In the spring, they’d return and retrieve the heads and antlers of the animals they had poached,” according to the Division of Wildlife Resources. In areas where no seasonal restrictions are in place, shed hunters “…on 4-wheelers and snowmobiles…can harass the elk and deer when they are most vulnerable – during late winter and early spring, when their reserves are low. The increased number of people hunting antlers has led to more and more competition and earlier and earlier disturbance of the animals,” says one Wyoming state warden. Some reports indicate that motorized hunters in Wyoming have run deer to death.

But what’s a good antler find if you can’t brag about it?!? Enter your booty in a contest! And when size really matters (we’re talkin’ antlers and egos, right?), there’s always the official Boone and Crockett record book to aspire to.

Truth is, I’ve got my own collection of five antlers in a basket that serves as a centerpiece. I didn’t compete with anyone to find ‘em, didn’t bug any animals to get ‘em, and I remember where I found each one. Spend enough time outside in the wild West–even the semi-wild–and you’ll find an antler now and then. And unless you’re on private property, or in a national park or some other restricted area, you can consider it your treasure, your cash bonanza, or proof of your superiority.

As for that dead mama griz and her orphaned cubs–it’s all a matter of priorities. Priorities on the part of the shed-hunting public, priorities on the part of the state management agency. As always, when human and animal priorities collide, the animals from whom we take don’t have a say in the matter.

This post also appears at animal law blog, Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.
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