Rack up another wildlife setback as the masses continue to reach out for politically correct nature experiences.
An Associated Press story out of Eugene sets the issue clearly in the first two paragraphs:
“It’s big-game hunting without the game. It’s hunting trophies off the hoof. Best of all, it’s bloodless, meaning the biggest branch-antlered bucks and bulls live to produce more – and possibly larger – trophies next spring.
It’s shed antler hunting, a hobby sport that’s “growing by leaps and bounds” in Oregon and throughout the West.”
Let’s focus on the statement, “Best of all, it’s bloodless.”
The “best of all” phrase is a sucker punch to trophy hunting by suggesting that kinder, gentler people can hang antler chandeliers in their homes without an ounce of guilt. Maybe they can; maybe not.
“It’s bloodless” is generally true, but that doesn’t mean antler gathering is a “deathless” activity.
We’re not talking about people who stumble onto antler sheds as they wander through the foothills in summer. The issue hangs on the people who want to cash in.
Money and competition are rarely a good combination with wildlife.
Problems with shed hunting are illustrated on the Oak Creek Wildlife Area near Yakima, where hundreds of elk are fed during winter now that orchards and other development have excluded them from their normal winter range.
Shed hunting is a problem when gatherers push big game off the spring green-up they desperately need in March, April and May to recover from the rigors of winter.
Visitors flock to Oak Creek to stand at a distance and watch the wintering elk being fed.
But from March through April, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department prohibits public access to the lowland feed site basically to protect the elk from shed hunters.
More and more people know that concentrations of wintering elk result in concentrations of valuable shed antlers.
“We pick up a lot of the visible shed antlers during the winter feeding because they’re too much of a temptation for some people,” said Oak Creek staffer Bruce Berry. “They’ll try to run past the fence and grab the antlers and spook the elk off the feed.”
Good-quality deer and elk antlers that still have their color are worth $6 to $8 a pound. A matched “set” of trophy antlers that score high on the Boone and Crockett scale used by hunters might go for a couple of hundred dollars.
“Our closure signs only keep out the novices,” said Berry.
“When we officially open the feeding site to antler gatherers on May 1, people are lined up to go in at midnight. It’s pretty much an Easter egg hunt. At sunrise, there will be 70 vehicles at the gate. But we’re always catching people sneaking in during the closure to grab antlers or stockpile them so they can bring them out later.
“The current fines aren’t enough to deter some people. The department is trying to upgrade the penalty to felony theft.”
Why the concern?
“Spring is a critical time for big game,” Berry said, noting that winter merely sets the stage for starvation. “Most elk that are weakened by winter die in the spring.
“Calves have no fat reserves. They need to be on the green-up undisturbed. If they keep getting pressured off, they don’t get the nutrition they need. We already have reports from people who were disturbed to find dead elk.”
Unfortunately, shed hunting is only one of myriad ways wildlife suffers harm from “bloodless” wildlife activities that appeal to the masses.
Wildlife photographers can increase abandonment rates by getting too close for too long to get those cute baby critter shots. Some predators have learned to follow human trails that lead to nests and dens.
Bird feeders that aren’t properly cleaned and maintained spread diseases that kill thousands of songbirds every year. The state of California last year officially declared that bird feeding was doing more harm than good for birds.
Catch-and-release fishing is a good conservation tool, but it isn’t pure. Mortality rates on fish that are caught and released range from 9 percent to more than 50 percent, depending on factors such as fish condition, water temperature and the amount of handling the fish must endure before being released.
Considering the major impacts of so-called “non-consumptive” wildlife recreation, hunters come out smelling pretty good.
A big-game hunter is the most regulated wildlife appreciator in the country. In most cases, a hunter’s season comes down to one tag, one shot, one animal.
Hunting is infinitely manageable. Mass wildlife appreciation is not.
Fish Lake Trail project: Join the group gathering Saturday, 9 a.m.-noon, to weed, groom and spruce up the Fish Lake Trail in the Sunset Highway area in a service project sponsored by REI and several local groups.
Parking will be at St. Matthews Baptist Church, 2815 W Sunset Blvd. Bring water, work gloves and one or more of the following: rake, hoe, shovel, pruning shears and tree trimming hand saw.
Help organizers by registering online at www.gonzaga.edu/fishlaketrail or call REI, (509) 328-9900.
Hiawatha opening: The Route of the Hiawatha – a 15-mile rail trail that winds through 10 tunnels and over seven high trestles in the Bitterroot Mountains near Lookout Pass – is scheduled to open for the season on May 26. Hours are 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m.