Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wants to reduce crowding on the opening day of antler hunting on the Blackfoot Clearwater Wildlife Management Area and is seeking public input.

A few decades ago, a subset of Montanans celebrated the return of spring by exploring the hills looking for antlers, primarily elk antlers. Deer and elk shed their antlers in early spring, so a lucky explorer could find a discarded “shed” antler or maybe even a matched pair.

But like many things in Montana, shed hunting has grown increasingly popular over the past decade, due partly to dozens of YouTube videos and other social media posts of people showing off their sheds. Add to that the fact that people can make money selling antlers to companies for furniture, lamps and dog chew-toys - although veterinarians warn that antlers can splinter or cause tooth fractures - and the result is a hobby that has gotten a little out of hand due to the sheer number of people participating.

Near Missoula, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area is the place to be on May 15 for people wanting to find sheds. Prior to May 15, shed hunting is prohibited on the Wildlife Management Area, because it can stress animals that have had to endure the winter. But at noon on opening day, the gates open.

The Wildlife Management Area has two main entrances, but the one that shed hunters prefer is on U.S. Highway 83 between Clearwater Junction and Seeley Lake because it’s closer to where elk tend to loiter on the property. But over the past few years, that entrance has become mobbed on opening day, and even days or weeks before, by people who park their vehicles and trailers up and down the highway and dodge across the road, creating unsafe conditions.

FWP reports that last year, people were staging their vehicles along the highway as early as mid-April. More tents and campers have filled the public land west of the highway as people wait for the opening. Last year, the Montana Highway Patrol had to shut the highway down due to so many people gathered along the road on the morning of opening day. During the first 15 to 20 minutes, hundreds of vehicles surged through the gate so their occupants could grab as many sheds as possible.

“We know we need to make a change in how we manage traffic for the opener at the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA, but we want people to help us work through the specifics of what those changes are going to be,” said Randy Arnold, FWP Region 2 supervisor.

FWP has been working with the Montana Department of Transportation and the Montana Highway Patrol to come up with a basic plan where antler hunters planning to enter the WMA in a vehicle will not be allowed to stage along Highway 83 and will instead register prior to opening day for a spot in line. FWP doesn’t plan on limiting the number of vehicles entering the area.

FWP will flesh out other details over the next few months and is asking the public to help design the pre-registration process and other opening-day logistics for vehicles, walkers, bikers and horse traffic. FWP Region 2 will hold a public meeting on Feb. 15 at 6 p.m. at both the Regional Headquarters, 3201 Spurgin Road, and the Seeley Lake Ranger Station. An online Zoom option is also available.

May 15 this year will be a test run of the new process that’s developed. Extra staff will be present on opening day to assist visitors and gather feedback that could refine the plan before the 2025 opener.

The Blackfoot Clearwater isn’t the only Wildlife Management Area to experience increasing numbers of shed hunters. East of the Continental Divide, the Sun River Wildlife Management Area also experiences an opening-day crush of people. The desire to be first has become too great for some, as evidenced by recent arrests.

Ivan Yarmolich of Missoula and Logan Baston of Anchorage, Alaska, were charged with trespassing after they entered the Blackfoot-Clearwater wildlife management area while it was closed in March 2022 to look for shed antlers. Yarmolich pleaded guilty this past June, but it wasn’t the first time he’d trespassed, according to The Western News. He was federally prosecuted for a 2013 trespass onto the National Bison Range and again in 2014 for trespassing on the Sun River Wildlife Management Area.

In May, Joshua Anders Rae of Bozeman pleaded guilty in federal District Court to trespassing on the National Elk Refuge near Jackson Hole, Wyo. Rae was caught trying to stash antlers before the opening day of the 2021 antler hunting season, according to the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Illegal shed hunters try to hide stashes of antlers ahead of the season opener, then return to retrieve them once the season opens. Rae was apparently stashing antlers to bolster his now-defunct “Old West Antlers” online dog chew business, according to the Forest Service. He was already on federal probation for being caught doing the same thing in 2019.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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