Utah’s ‘shed hunting’ season to begin on time as deer conditions improve

Jan 31, 2024, 5:01 PM | Updated: 9:59 pm

The antlers of a mule deer shed found in southern Utah on Tuedsay. Utah's shed season will begin on...

The antlers of a mule deer shed found in southern Utah on Tuedsay. Utah's shed season will begin on Thursday, on time this year after a lengthy delay last winter. (Utah Division of Wildlife Resources)

(Utah Division of Wildlife Resources)

SALT LAKE CITY — Male deer, elk, moose and other big game animals typically shed their antlers around late winter and early spring, before regrowth later in the year. When this natural process happens, many people are eager to swoop in and collect the antlers.

“Shed hunting,” as it’s called, is quite popular in Utah. State wildlife officials estimate that more than 20,000 people go out and search for dropped antlers every season.

Since late winter and early spring are typically the toughest times for wildlife, the state requires participants take an ethics course to help avoid causing any issues.

With closer-to-normal winter conditions reported statewide this winter and deer herds showing signs of improvement, this year’s antler season will begin on time after a lengthy delay last year.

Thursday marks the opening day for people who complete the free online ethics course offered by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The course is required for anyone planning to collect wildlife antlers through mid-April. People planning to hunt for shed antlers after April 15 aren’t required to take the course.

The reason for the ethics course

Utah has required this course for people participating between February and mid-April since 2009 largely because of the stress that comes with more people heading into wildlife habitats during a fragile time for various species, especially deer.

Big game animals can have a “difficult time finding food” and usually have to rely on fat reserves to survive the winter, said Rusty Robinson, coordinator of the division’s once-in-a-lifetime species permit program. Since the animals may move around or run more with people around, they may use up their remaining energy before spring arrives.

“Being disturbed briefly, once or twice, isn’t too significant, but we have over 20,000 people who routinely shed hunt in Utah each year, so ongoing, repeated disturbances can be detrimental to deer,” he explained.

In extreme cases, the shed hunting season is put on hold. Last year’s shed hunt didn’t start until May because of the state’s record snowpack collection. Wildlife biologists conducting annual winter fieldwork found Utah’s deer, already struggling from years of drought conditions, were also struggling to make it through the harsh winter.

Deer health update

The season is back on schedule because deer conditions have improved and the landscape conditions are better.

Faith Heaton Jolley, spokeswoman for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, told KSL.com biologists are still tabulating data from the latest winter fieldwork period in December, where more than 900 deer statewide were analyzed. She said they observed the “highest statewide average body fat” among deer in at least a decade.

Doe body fat levels jumped 27% between the 2022 and 2023 December counts, Jolley said. Record-high fat percentages in does were recorded in the Cache, Monroe, Morgan, Pine Valley and Wasatch-Manti units.

Jolley noted “above-average weights” were recorded for fawns, as well, with records set in the Book Cliffs, Monroe, Pine Valley and San Juan units — all indications deer herds are healthier than in years past.

Meanwhile, Utah’s snowpack is much closer to normal. As of Wednesday morning, Utah’s snowpack average is nearly half of what was collected by the end of January last year, but it’s also 96% of the state’s average median snowpack. That’s made for better winter conditions.

“With the mild winter and great deer conditions, we are optimistic that we will see high overwinter survival for both does and fawns,” Jolley said.

What to know before shed hunting

Those who complete the ethics course are required to save their certificate of completion in the division’s hunting and fishing app, or print out a copy to carry out into the field.

While people are allowed to collect antlers throughout most of Utah, there are some limitations. Collection isn’t allowed on Native American lands, national parks, “many” national monuments or any state wildlife management area that is closed for the season, according to the division. Shed hunting on private property requires written permission of the landowner.

Division officials said people should not collect and instead report any “deadheads” — antlers or horns still attached to a skull — they come across, too, as the animal may have died in a poaching case. Conservation officers are assigned to investigate those after a report is filed. More than 650 deadheads were reported in Utah last year.

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Utah’s ‘shed hunting’ season to begin on time as deer conditions improve