JACKSON, Wyo. — A booming market for elk horns pushed the federal government's annual antler auction to record-breaking prices over the weekend.
The unique event, which for years was dominated by Asian buyers who grind up the antlers for medical potions, netted $131,400. The previous high was $111,305 in 2011, and the annual average over the past decade is $77,781.
Although Asian buyers are less prominent these days, the record prices are driven by demand for antlers in furniture making, jewelry and even dog chews.
Some buyers are tourists who purchase antlers for non-business reasons.
"I'm going to have them mounted and put up next to my Alaskan wolf cubs that I got up in Alaska," said Steve Hassett, of Blue Ridge, Ga.
The antlers are collected each year from the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole. Elk shed their antlers each year and drop them on the ground.
"It's illegal to collect anything off a wildlife refuge," said refuge spokeswoman Lori Iverson.
But the Jackson District Boy Scouts have an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It gives Scouts the exclusive right to collect antlers scattered across the refuge.
"Scouts around here love it. It's unique," said Jack Graig-Tiso, one of numerous Boy Scouts who rounded up the antlers and helped prepare the horns for auction.
The auction is held at the Jackson Town Square, where large elk horn arches have become a staple of tourist photos for decades.
In return for thousands of hours of work, the Boy Scouts organization is allowed to keep one-fourth of the proceeds.
"The National Elk Refuge retains 75 percent of that," Iverson said. "We use that for habitat projects."
Buyers purchased more than four tons of antlers at this year's auction. The winning bids averaged $15.43 per pound. The average price over the previous decade was $9.72 per pound.
Asian buyers are less visible in recent years, but they haven't withdrawn from the market. Instead, antler brokers do much of the buying and ship the horns to Asia.
"It's part of their culture," broker Roy Rasmussen said, "and they buy hundreds of tons, year after year after year," from various antler sources around the world.
Most buyers in Jackson this year seemed to have other businesses and hobbies involving elk antlers.
"Furniture," Rasmussen said. "Chandeliers. They've started using them for knife handles. Jewelry. Dog chews have become a big item."
"They like the marrow in the center of the bone," said Jackson resident Willis Pratt as he watched a black Labrador chewing on a broken antler. "That's what they go for."
As far as the elk are concerned, it's the gift that keeps on giving. Each of them has already started regrowing a new set of antlers, many of which will be collected and auctioned off next year.