Officials in Wyoming fined an Idaho man $6,000 last month after he camped on the National Elk Refuge for 10 days illegally collecting elk shed antlers. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) press release, the poacher amassed more than 1,000 pounds of antlers valued at more than $18,000 during his illegal stay on refuge property last April.

Frank Durbian, the project leader at the 24,000-acre National Elk Refuge near Jackson, Wyoming, tells Field & Stream that one of his staffers spotted a large pile of elk antlers while out performing routine duties on refuge property last spring. “They noticed the stash of antlers on the boundary between the refuge and the forest (service property),” Durbian says. “They alerted our refuge law enforcement officer who had a team of officers here that were preparing for the annual May 1 opener.”

Shed antler collection season leads to hectic scenes at the National Elk Refuge as antler hunters from all over the country descend on the area in droves in search of valuable sheds dropped by the elk herds that winter there. In recent years, Wyoming has implemented tighter restrictions around shed hunting activities, including an official season that comes on in May 1. Both antler collection and overnight camping strictly prohibited within the boundaries of the refuge. But shed hunters must access the adjacent Bridger-Teton National Forest via refuge roadways.

“A few years ago, it was getting kind of out of hand so now everyone meets at the fairgrounds (in Jackson) and registers with the Jackson police Dept. and gets a number to get in line,” say Durbian. “The Jackson Police Department then leads that line out at 6 a.m. on May 1 to the refuge entrance, and everyone kind of slowly and uniformly follows the refuge speed limit and drives out [of the refuge] and up into the [National] Forest. That’s when they get out and start hunting for antlers.”

The defendant in this case was skirting that procedure at least a month before Wyoming’s 2023 shed hunting season was in session. According to USFWS, his activities constituted a felony violation of Lacey Act because he attempted to sell the illegally collected sheds to antler buyers. “Buyers of shed antlers have turned them into dog chews, buttons, knife handles and wall ornaments,” the USFWS press release states. “Demand for shed antlers has grown so high that hundreds of cars line up on the entrance road to the National Elk Refuge each year on opening day May 1.”

Durbian says that illegal shed hunting activities put undue stress on elk that are trying to survive the rigors of a harsh Wyoming winter. “Late winter, early spring is a critical time for elk, and those areas are closed to reduce stress and disturbances, and to reduce potential morbidity and mortality,” he says. “Any time you’re going in there earlier, you run the risk of stressing out elk that are already in a stressed situation. They’re waiting for spring and the green wave to arrive.”

Related: Wyoming Bill Bans Non-Resident Shed Hunters for First Full Week of Spring Season

 State and federal wildlife agents worked together to investigate the poacher for close to a full year before his his sentence was handed down in March 2024. In addition to the $6,000 fine, he’ll been banned from Wyoming public lands and from hunting anywhere in the world for the next three years.

“These types of violations are an ongoing problem, as the market value of antlers keeps going up, we are experiencing more theft and trespassing on the Elk Refuge,” said Service Regional Chief of Refuge Law Enforcement David Bonham. “The opening of the shed antler season is a big deal out here, for quite a while. We send 5 to 7 additional officers to the Refuge for this event each year to serve as first responders. Our goal is to make sure everyone stays safe and prepared for whatever the conditions may be.”