Shed hunting has become a popular off-season activity for many hunters who share a deep love of the animals they pursue. It’s a great way to cure cabin fever and gather a few totems from their favorite game animals. Finding a matched set of dropped antlers from a big buck or bull is like hitting the lottery. It is a unique feeling to be able to hold an antler from an animal that’s still running around out there. Hunters can also learn a lot about the habits of bucks and bulls based on where they find those sheds. A shed antler offers up hope and anticipation for the upcoming fall hunting seasons.

But this year’s shed hunting season may be a little different in parts of the West.

As serious snowstorms continue to pummel the Rocky Mountains, this winter is making survival extremely tough for big game animals in many areas. Even in an average winter, it is a struggle for wildlife to make it through to spring. When snow levels are high enough to restrict travel and feeding, many big game animals are living on borrowed time. In parts of Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah, significant mule deer winterkill is expected if harsh winter conditions persist. State game and fish agencies have implemented supplemental feeding efforts in the hardest hit areas in an attempt to both disperse animals and avoid catastrophic losses.

Fawns and calves along with older bucks and bulls suffer the highest winter mortality rates. Deep snow makes feeding and travel more difficult for young animals. Older bucks and bulls enter winter worn out from the rut with little in the way of fat reserves. Extreme cold compounds the problem, as it becomes harder to maintain body weight and temperature. This leads to death by starvation, exposure, or disease. Otherwise healthy does or cows may even abort fetuses during exceptionally tough winters. Even for those animals that make it through winter, early spring often brings the highest mortality rates. It’s often said that winter weakens and spring kills.

Shed hunting can have some deadly implications for animals depleted by the rigors of winter survival. Just as antlers begin to drop, deer and elk are often in a situation where they are experiencing a calorie deficit. They are expending more energy than poor winter foraging conditions can replace. So when shed hunters inadvertently push or spook animals that energy expenditure might be enough to push them over the edge.

I used to get pretty serious about shed hunting and built up quite a collection of drops. Every spring the pile grew as I searched for mule deer and elk antlers of trophy proportions. But over time, my attitude towards shed hunting began to slowly change. Bumping big groups of deer and elk was a regular occurrence and every now and then I would come across animals too weak to run or dead in their beds.  I still look for sheds while I’m out turkey hunting after wintering herds have dispersed but I’ve given up searching for antlers during late winter and early spring.  

Many states have created shed hunting seasons to protect wintering animals from being harassed. These seasons only open after the worst of winter has passed and deer and elk have moved away from their winter range to higher elevations. This year, in Utah all shed hunting is illegal until April 1. Near Gunnison Colorado, all human activity is prohibited where large herds of wintering deer and elk are at risk of a major winterkill. It is likely similar restrictions will be implemented elsewhere.

Winterkill is a natural phenomenon that deer and elk have overcome for thousands of years but a smart, conscientious hunter should avoid being the source of undue stress. This does not mean you should stop shed hunting altogether but you’ll be doing the deer and elk a favor if you wait to search for dropped antlers until later in the spring. Just by giving deer and elk a little more space when they need it most, you may even find more sheds. Animals that are comfortable staying in a given area are likely to drop their antlers in a more concentrated manner. Once deer and elk have left their wintering grounds, sheds that aren’t widely dispersed are easier to find. During a tough winter like we’re seeing this year, it is especially important for hunters to be thinking about the future. Simply put, a trophy-sized buck that dies this winter will not be around next hunting season, and he won’t produce another set of sheds next year.

Here are several links with information on shed hunting restrictions and season dates. Keep in mind, as winter conditions change, new shed hunting closures may be implemented. Check your state game and fish agency’s website for more information.

Brody Henderson is a hunter, fly fishing guide, writer, wilderness production assistant for the MeatEater television show and MeatEater‘s editorial contributor.