SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Antlers are in high demand these days, not just as rustic decor, but for things like doggie chew bones. And that fuels a new threat to deer and elk in the Pacific Northwest. In the wild, stress and natural factors can cause the animals to shed antlers from time to time and some people collect them. But others see antlers as moneymaking opportunities and break the law. They don't wait for the antlers to fall. They harass or kill animals to get their prized racks. Courtney Flatt from Northwest Public Radio reports on the effort to stop this poaching.
COURTNEY FLATT, BYLINE: The trick to looking for antlers in the wild is to keep your eyes on the ground.
ROB TANNER: You're trying to just find something that looks out of the ordinary.
FLATT: Rob Tanner and his brother-in-law Troy Capps are hiking around juniper trees and bitterbrush in the high-desert terrain of Central Oregon. The men are looking for antlers that were shed by elk or deer. It's called shed hunting.
TANNER: It's just an adrenaline rush. It's like, oh, you know, this could be the one.
FLATT: They're seeing hoof tracks and bushes nibbled by deer.
TROY CAPPS: We're in the prime right here.
FLATT: Capps spots something on the ground, but these are signs of people, not deer. It's not the first time they've seen this, and it's got them fuming. To protect animals and their habitat, motorized vehicles are barred from this area in winter and early spring.
CAPPS: That's a four-wheeler. I mean, they're probably out here, you know, running around and that's - that's wrong.
FLATT: Capps and Tanner started Oregon Shed Hunters 10 years ago to promote ethical shed hunting. They say legit shed hunters don't cut fences. They don't destroy habitat. They don't harass animals to get them to drop their antlers. But it happens, and that's where Richard Mann comes in. He's a wildlife enforcement captain with the state of Washington. He says people sometimes jump the gun. They go in to closed areas and collect shed antlers early. This happens in the winter, right before elk naturally shed their antlers. It's also when elk are at their most vulnerable and hungry and sometimes sick.
RICHARD MANN: People are ruining these elk while they're really in poor condition physically. They may not drop dead on sight, but some of them do. Once they get off, they don't recover from that kind of stress.
FLATT: In Washington, people caught trespassing can be fined up to $1,000. But antler racks can sell for up to $35 per pound. A set from a trophy animal - the kind most likely to end up on a wall somewhere - can bring in thousands.
MANN: Everything's together.
FLATT: The volunteer group Eyes In The Woods helps law enforcement catch people lured by the potentially big payday. The group is setting up cameras to spot trespassers in Central Washington's Oak Creek Wildlife Area. Kyle Winton co-founded Eyes In The Woods.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ladder.
FLATT: The team secures cameras to bear boxes. They screw on antennas and strap the boxes to trees. Then they wait. So far this season, four people have been nabbed. Trespassers will sneak into protected areas and stockpile antlers. Then they come back the night before antler season begins. In the morning, they walk out with their antlers and try to blend in with law-abiding shed hunters.
KYLE WINTON: It's kind of suspicious when you see somebody coming out with 10 or 12 antlers at 9 o'clock in the morning.
FLATT: The night before it opens to the public, Winton and his volunteers roam the preserve in search of poachers. They radio in updates on their patrols.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I got a few people who went in early at the junction.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Let him go.
FLATT: By the time the gates open in the morning, queues of cars, horses and people stream in. Many waited a sleepless night so they could go in first.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Just over the crest there...
FLATT: In the afternoon, shed hunters of all ages show off their prizes. Seven-year-old Bobbi Cline found an antler pretty close to the gate. It's almost as big as her.
BOBBI CLINE: I'm holding an elk rack that we found. We found it in the bushes.
FLATT: Her parents say that if the family collects enough antlers, someday they'd like to make a chandelier. How soon they're able to do that may depend on the success of wildlife officials and volunteers in stamping out antler poaching. For NPR News, I'm Courtney Flatt.
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