It’s the shedding season for the area’s deer, elk and moose.
Even the biggest bucks and bulls have been getting rid of their head-gear and looking a lot like the girls.
They’re shedding their antlers to make room for new and maybe larger racks by next fall to help gauge their breeding prowess.
Antler shedding doesn’t happen all at once.
In early December, Hal Meenach, a landowner south of Spokane, reported seeing the first buck of the season shedding antlers for the winter. The buck had lost only the antler on one side of his head to stand out as a lopsided sign of the season that runs well into March.
Hiking in the Snake River breaks in the first week of January, I found two antlers side by side where a large whitetail buck apparently bowed and dropped them off simultaneously. A week later, hiking in Riverside State Park, I saw two mule deer still proudly wearing their large hat-racks.
Hans Krauss once sent me a photo of a moose that had just dropped his antlers near his Spokane Valley home on Jan. 18.
Antler shedding figures in to Washington Fish and Wildlife Department winter big-game surveys.
“We time the survey in early January because we know that by Jan. 15 there’s a high probability that some bulls will have lost both antlers and be hard to distinguish from cows from the air,” said biologist Howard Ferguson.
Elk tend to shed a little later, peaking in March.
Antlers are temporary projections of bone grown and shed each year. New growth will start in March or April as increased daylight triggers testosterone production.
Wildlife biologists say antlers are the fastest-growing tissue in any mammal. Deer or elk antlers can grow an inch a day. A big Alaska bull moose can grow an 80-pound rack in a summer, adding a pound of bone a day during peak growth.
Genetics has an influence on antler growth and size, but nutrition is the most important factor, Ferguson said.
The time required from start to finish of antler growth can be as short as 90 days for spike bull elk (usually yearlings), gradually increasing with age up to a maximum of 140 days for a trophy-class bull that’s usually 7 years or older. A mature elk’s antlers can grow to 30-40 pounds.
So you can only imagine the relief they feel when the antlers shed.
People have long enjoyed collecting shed antlers to craft into displays, jewelry, tools as well as for folk medicines.
“They used to go out in April or May, but as shed hunting has become more popular, more and more people are going out earlier, to the point that it’s become a factor in the survival of the elk,” said Pat Fowler, Washington’s wildlife biologist for the Blue Mountains.
“Most elk won’t start dropping antlers until late February or March, but we have guys who are out there watching them already. The shed hunters run those hillsides every day and that tends to break up the bull groups, reducing their security, and send them into the deeper snow on the north slopes when they should be down lower where they can expend less energy and find more food.”
Some states have enacted laws prohibiting shed-antler gathering on designated big-game winter ranges. Fowler said he’d like to see a law considered for Washington, too.