Usually, when you think of poachers, images of guns and dead, bloody animals likely come to mind... gross.
But poachers don't all kill animals — some poachers might just rip live animals or even rare plants from their natural habitats, to sell them to zoos, nurseries, or pet stores. But poaching can even refer to something as seemingly harmless as taking elk or deer antlers off the ground. Yes, the activity most commonly known as shed hunting is sometimes illegal, depending on based on where you are and what time of year it is.
Even though elk do shed their antlers naturally, collecting them brings up a number of ethical issues. Many states and parks ban the practice, while others limit when and where you can do it. Breaking the law, however, may result in citations, fines, being banned from federal lands or hunting, or even jail time, depending on your record.
The legality of shed hunting is an interesting discourse, as it doesn't actually cause any pain or suffering to the animals themselves.
Oftentimes, people collect elk antlers because of their fruitful profit. In fact, a large set can sell for several hundred dollars, whether they're being used to decorate a rustic cabin, or if they're being sold as dog treats (which really aren't good for your dog).
But regardless, shed antler hunting is discouraged in many places for the sake of our ecosystems, and in the name of conservation.
Keep reading to learn more about the issues associated with shed antler hunting, and for a guide to the shed hunting laws and regulations in all 50 states.
Why is collecting and selling elk and deer antlers illegal in some areas?
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, species in the deer family (including elk, deer, and moose) usually shed their antlers naturally once a year. It's completely painless and often makes them feel more lightweight — kind of similar to how you might feel after getting a much-needed haircut. But collecting shed antlers is often illegal in refuges because even those discarded bones play an important role in ecosystems.
Once discarded, other animals reap the benefits of the antlers when foraging.
Rodents such as squirrels or porcupines, for example, like gnawing on discarded deer and elk antlers for protein and calcium. They also chew on them similarly to dogs, to wear down their teeth. Bears and foxes even enjoy eating antlers.
And what's more, it's difficult to prove that those antlers were left on the ground ethically, without someone hurting or killing the animal before leaving them for dead. According to NPR, this is a somewhat common and hateful crime in central Oregon.
Though animals often shed their antlers in the winter, many states ban shed hunting for part of the year to protect animals when food is scarce. For instance, from Jan. 1 through April 30, Colorado Parks and Wildlife bans it on all public lands west of I-25; and during the same dates, Wyoming Game and Fish Commission bans shed antler hunting on public lands west of the Continental Divide.
Other states such as South Dakota, ban shed hunting on land owned by game and fish, while states such as New Mexico require a permit. Additionally, shed hunting is generally prohibited in all national parks and refuges.
In what states is shed hunting legal?
The laws on shed hunting differ from state to state. Generally, in states across the Midwest, East, and South, it's legal to pick up deer antlers any time of year, as noted by Field & Stream. But in many states in the Western U.S., hunters can only collect shed antlers during certain times of the year. Previously, shed hunting was illegal in just one state: West Virginia. But as of 2023, West Virginia residents may hunt for shed antlers.
Here's a look at all 50 states, and their policies on shed antler hunting. Remember that shed hunting is always prohibited in national parks and preserves — so in states where we have listed that you can shed hunt anywhere, know that these nationally-protected lands are still off-limits for shed hunting.
|Alabama||Legal, regulations unclear.|
|Alaska||Legal, regulations unclear.|
|Arizona||Legal on public property.|
|Arkansas||Legal on private land with permission; legal on Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife management areas, except for NPS areas.|
|California||Illegal on California Department of Fish and Wildlife lands, legal on other public lands.|
|Colorado||Illegal anywhere west of I-25 from Jan. 1 through April 30; legal during the rest of the year.|
|Connecticut||Legal, seemingly with no restrictions.|
|Delaware||Legal, seemingly with no restrictions.|
|Georgia||Legal, but a hunting license is required.|
|Idaho||Unregulated, but many Idahoans want to see the practice become regulated.|
|Illinois||Legal, with various regulations depending on location.|
|Indiana||Legal, permit no longer required.|
|Iowa||Legal, as long as the antlers are not connected to the skull.|
|Kansas||Legal, except on certain lands such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service national wildlife refuges.|
|Kentucky||Illegal, though residents who find a deer or elk skull with antlers attached can apply for a “carcass disposal tag” from a Conservation Officer.|
|Louisiana||Unregulated, though shed antler traps are illegal.|
|Maine||Unregulated, and therefore allowed anywhere.|
|Maryland||Legal, though permission is needed before collecting shed antlers from private property, and you'll need to obtain a confirmation number.|
|Minnesota||Legal, but illegal in national and state parks, as well as Scientific and Natural Areas.|
|Mississippi||Legal, but selling and trading shed antlers are not permitted.|
|Missouri||Legal in Missouri Department of Conservation areas only.|
|Montana||Legal, but prohibited in Montana state parks. The state's Wildlife Management Areas open at noon on May 15 each year.|
|Nebraska||Legal, with seemingly no restrictions.|
|Nevada||Legal with a certificate from May 1 to June 30 only, and only in certain counties. Nevadans must take a free online course before attaining a certificate.|
|New Hampshire||Legal, though New Hampshire Fish and Game recommends that people wait until spring to go shed antler hunting, to avoid disturbing deer.|
|New Jersey||Legal, with seemingly no restrictions.|
|New Mexico||Legal, as long as they are not attached to a skull.|
|New York||Legal, regulations unclear.|
|North Carolina||Regulations unclear.|
|North Dakota||Legal, but a permit is needed to possess antlers attached to a skull plate.|
|Ohio||Legal in wildlife areas, though the Ohio Department of Natural Resources recommends checking with the agency that manages the property to be safe. Permission is needed from landowners before shed hunting on private property.|
|Oklahoma||Legal in wildlife areas managed by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, as long as antlers are naturally detached from the skull plate.|
|Oregon||Legal on most public property as long as the antlers are naturally detached from the skull plate. Permission must be granted from landowners before looking for sheds on private property.|
|Pennsylvania||Legal on public land; permission is required from private landowners before going onto their property to shed hunt.|
|Rhode Island||Legal, but the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management suggests throwing any "sub-par" sheds back into nature for animals to consume.|
|South Carolina||Legal on public lands.|
|South Dakota||Legal on public land that is not owned by game and fish.|
|Tennessee||Legal in wildlife management areas, but landowner permission is needed to look on private lands.|
|Texas||Legal on public lands, but shed hunters will need landowner permission before entering private lands.|
|Utah||Legal on public property statewide, but from Feb. 1 to April 15, Utah residents must obtain and carry a free antler-gathering certificate while shed hunting. The course must be completed every year. In early 2023, the state issued a temporary ban on shed hunting, so make sure to frequently check local laws.|
|Vermont||Legal on all public lands.|
|Virginia||Legal, regulations unclear.|
|Washington||Legal as long as the antlers were naturally shed.|
|West Virginia||Legal as long as its on one's own land, on public lands, or from private lands with the landowner's written permission.|
|Wisconsin||Legal, regulations unclear.|
|Wyoming||Illegal from Jan. 1 through April 30 on public lands west of the Continental Divide; legal the rest of the year on designated lands.|
This true crime case involves elk antler poaching.
If you're a true crime podcast fan, you may be familiar with a Park Predators episode about shed hunting.
The episode tells the story of a Montana man who ventured into Yellowstone National Park for a four-day shed hunting trip in 1991. After he failed to meet his girlfriend at a preplanned date and time, when he was supposed to be finished, she called him in as a missing person. His body was never found.
Spoilers ahead, if you're going to listen to the episode yourself.
Authorities insisted he was on the run from search parties because shed hunting is illegal in National Parks such as Yellowstone. But others, including the host of the series, Delia D'Ambra-Wheeler believe he likely had a bad encounter with other shed hunters.
So while you might think antlers would look good on your mantle, we recommend opting for chic metallic ones instead of real ones.
This article, originally published on March 23, 2023, has been updated.