Shed Madness on the Game Range

More than 100 parked cars snaked their way down the shoulder of Highway 83, engines humming. 

Photos by Dave Fields

Montanans wearing designer camouflage jackets, sweatshirts, blue jeans, boots and hats with antler embroidery milled around, talking and laughing. Rainier, Miller Lite and Coors cans cracked open, emptied and were tossed into truck beds, as a tattered American flag, zip tied to a wooden stake, waved in the back of a grey Silverado.

Almost every hip had an accompanying pistol attached to it.

The Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA
The red white and blue waving in the back of a truck.
A shed hunter with a pistol in a custom holster on his hip.

Kids sitting in the backs of trucks played hooky from school with fathers who may or may not have been doing the same from work.

Fires warmed those who camped on the side of the highway the night before and were a welcome sight on the gray, drizzly morning. Anxious hands reached for phones to check the time.

Noon couldn’t come soon enough.

At the end of the line of cars, cowboys from Bozeman, Great Falls, Kalispell, Anaconda and even Idaho formed circles near horse trailers, cracking beers as if the sun was setting, rather than climbing the horizon. Their horses stomped and whinnied, waiting for the mad cross-country dash soon to come.

A group of cowboys from across the state talk about the upcoming shed hunt.
A shed hunter leads her excited horse around the grass before the start of the shed hunt.
A Miller Lite can opened before the noon shed season start.

A collection of bones has brought this motley assortment of Montanans together. Tined bone is almost worth its weight in gold, but is far too precious to sell. In an hour, the gates to the Clearwater Game Range would open and the rally for antlers would begin.

Every year in late fall, specific Wildlife Management Areas in Montana are closed to the public, allowing elk and deer a safe haven from people to survive the winter.

The winter haven doesn’t just benefit of the animals either.

Closing these WMAs and giving animals a safe space also keeps large groups of grazing species off of local farm lands, preventing potential conflicts between ranchers. As winter slowly fades into spring, the congregation of elk, whitetails and mule deer start dropping their antlers across the more than 43,000 acre range.

A shed hunter brings home an unlucky elk head that didnt make it through winter.

Normally all of Montana’s selected game ranges open the same day, on May 15, but late winter storms left the elk needing more time to recover, and spring rains left roads unsuitable to drive. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks decided to keep the area closed until June 1. This meant, for the first time, shed hunters who had to choose a WMA opening, could now attend two.

Shed hunting popularity seems to be on a constant upward trajectory, with professional hunters and amateurs alike adding shed season to their spring calendars.

The shed market has matched the rising popularity. According to the website a seller can get up to $16 a pound for high-quality elk antlers, which can make a profitable day when you consider one mature elk antler can weigh up to, if not more than, 20 pounds.

Therein lies the conundrum, as most people that day seemed to have no intentions of selling their prizes. Sure, a few market shed hunters would end up selling their keep, but for the most part there seemed to be an inherent, intrinsic value placed on the bone headware. Antlers have been used throughout human history for ceremonial purposes, as ornaments and tools, and our love and interest in them isn’t declining.

Back along the line of cars, Fish Wildlife and Parks Officer Dan Curtin jealously guarded the closed gate leading inside the WMA. Curtin said the department had a policy of allowing cars to be left up to 48 hours before the opening of the gate, but for several weeks they’d towed any vehicle left on the highway, vying for a spot in the front of the line.

Fish Wildlife and Parks Officer Dan Curtin talks to shed hunters before the mass noon start.

He also mentioned the perennial uptick in grizzly and wolf sightings throughout the area. Hence the gallons of bear spray and arsenal of pistols on hand.

Across the road from the awaiting convoy, locals and visitors gathered to witness the scene. The mass start was only minutes away as more onlookers and passerbys rubbernecked, wondering what could drive so many people to this sort of behavior.

Without the official signal of a checkered flag, the rally began. Engines roared to life and throttles revved. Hunters dove into the backs of trucks and jumped into the cabs like a scene from The Dukes of Hazzard.

From the back of a truck you could see the chain of cars lurch forward. Then, with the site of open road ahead of them, each vehicle hit the gas, racing the car in front of them, even though the narrow mud road left them unable to pass.

As the first 20 cars entered through the once-guarded gate, a teenager on a dirt bike tore through the woods in a desperate attempt to cut the line entirely. Officer Curtin and another officer removed him from the bike and escorted him toward the back of a law enforcement vehicle.

Trucks bucked along the rutted road and mud splashed onto the sides of cars as off-road vehicles slid through puddles from the recent rains. Horses and hikers appeared in the spaces between the trees, sprinting through the woods.

The muddy road leading deeper into the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range in Montana.
The ride from the back of a truck down a mud strewn road.
A horseman rides through the woods looking for elk antlers.

Vehicles bailed off the road at each pull out, and drivers threw pack straps over their shoulders and sprinted through the rolling hills.

Soon, shed hunters laid siege to the entire hillside as they stormed through thickets and ravines, trying their best to guess what could cause an antler to fall off an elk’s head.

There was a quiet before the storm as no one spoke and all eyes were focused on the forest floor in a quiet determination. The only sound was the now fading hum of engines continuing the rally, but soon hoots and hollers erupted all across the woods signaling success. Two gun shots went off in the disturbingly close distance. No one was sure why.

Two hunters run uphill on the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA at the start of the shed hunt.

Further uphill, a different kind of hollering signaled panic. Out of a thick stand of aspens, a riderless horse came sprinting into view, as a man on another horse appeared in the background shouting for someone to stop the runaway animal. At the start of the hunt, the solo horse bucked the man’s wife off and sprinted away in a panic. The loose horse slowed to stop, panting, as the rider gently grabbed the lead rope on the bridle and rode away to attend to his wife.

A rider chases after a loose horse on opening day of shed season on the Clearwater WMA
A rider catches a loose horse on opening day of shed season on the Clearwater Wildlife Management Area

Soon the woods resembled an anthill as hunters stomped through every thicket, drainage and stand of trees. Nearly everyone packed at least one elk antler on their back. Lucky seekers carried out matching pairs and those who knew exactly where to look had stacks. The day ended with hundreds of antlers removed and set gently in the backs of pickups, imbued with sentimental pride and ready to decorate homes and garages across the state.

Shed tines stick out of the pack and match an antler tattoo.
A rider carries off a matching set of elk sheds on the Clearwater WMA
A couple celebrate their first elk shed of the day on the Clearwater WMA
A lone shed hunter hits the jackpot on opening day of shed season on Montana's Clearwater WMA

If you enjoyed the wild ride of shed hunting on the Clearwater and want to get your best friend involved, be sure and check out the onX guide to shed hunting with your dog.