On, antlers carry only social value within a species. Off, they carry a price tag.
How much? Not as much as some would believe, but enough to trigger some unscrupulous practices and much concern. Within Utah:- Trophy animals are poached and their skulls, caps and horns sold.
- Trophy animals are shot, hidden and then later retrieved and claimed as legal pick-up heads.
- Trophy hunts are sold with no restrictions on season, area or game, and no requirement for a license.
It happens, and, said Craig Miyagishima, assistant chief of law enforcement for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, "more than we realized.
"We didn't think we had a problem, but then we had people from other states telling us that we did, that a lot of trophies were coming out of Utah illegally.
"Last year we put in an intensive effort and came up with six or seven people poaching for trophies. This year we're planning to do more intensive monitoring of the winter range."
The value of these trophy heads is, of course, subjective. To many sportsmen a trophy taken in the field is priceless.
For the opportunity to hunt certain species, hunters are willing to pay a sizeable sum. Many states put single tags up for high bid, with all money collected going back to fund wildlife programs. One sheep hunt in Wyoming went for $77,000. Highest bid for the Utah desert bighorn sheep special permit has been $33,000, for a moose $16,000 and for a buffalo $6,500.
On the open market, off the hoof, however, values are greatly deflated. Much less said Ben Barto, of Natures Re-Creations, Inc., a local antler broker, than some people are claiming.
"A major concern I have is that people think they can get fantastic money for trophies . . . Well, they can't," he said.
Don Schaffler, president of Antlers Unlimited in Ennis, Mont., the largest horn and trophy mount dealer in the U.S., said he has two Rocky Mountain sheep mounts that would place Nos. 7 and 8 in the all-time record books, "and I'd be happy to get $10,000."
There was a report that sheep horns, any sheep horns, would sell for $1,000 per inch.
"One of the sheep is 45 (inches) on one side, 441/2 (inches) on the other. If the report was right, I should be able to get $45,000 - but I can't get anywhere close to that."
"I'd hate for people to just think they can go out, shoot a ram and make all this money.
"The thing is, if they did go off and pop a sheep, then what? Who are they going to sell it to? What are they going to do with it? There isn't that much of a market.
"I've got a scrapebook full of stories about big money for trophies. It's just not there."
He said elk were not as much in demand as sheep and that buffalo were in even less demand. He said he owns the No. 4 all-time typical elk . . . "and I'm into it $3,500."
The average record book mule deer mount is worth between $700 and $1,500, and whitetail $1,200 to $1,500 . . . "The higher the score, the more money, of course."
"A good clean buffalo skull and cap is worth around $400," Schaffler said. "You can buy a full, live buffalo for $2,000. Hanging, you can sell the meat for about $2 a pound. It doesn't make much sense to go out and pay several thousand dollars just for a mount. And again, who are you going to sell it to?"
The value of these trophies is not in the mount as much as in the actual hunt. And it is there that the law is being skirted.
"We've got quite a herd of sheep in Utah," said Miyagishima. "But no records ever come out of Utah. Why? You have to wonder if the trophies are not being poached . . . a helicopter brings in a hunter, drops him off in a remote area, near sheep, then picks him up and they're gone."
There are reported cases, also, where trophy animals have been shot and left to be picked up later. In one case the animal was wired to a tree so scavengers wouldn't remove the head and horns. In another, a trophy sheep was found buried under a pile of rocks.
The purpose is to return later, retrieve the trophy and then report it to officials as a pick-up head. (Finding a trophy is as good as shooting one. The No. 1 black bear and No. 1 grizzly in the record books were pick-up heads.)
Also, hunters are coming into the state and booking illegal hunts. Regulations on these hunts are recognized. Hunts go on when, where and however brings in the trophy. The animal is then laundered through a legal permit or is taken out of state. As Miyagishima said, there were several arrests made last year involving this type of hunt.
There are, in fact, two markets for antlers. One, of course, is for the trophy value.
The second, and by far the largest, is for commercial purposes - items such as accent on furniture, belt buckles, knife handles, tie tacs, hat pins and carvings, and as aphrodisiacs for the Asia market.
Here, too, said Barto, inflated prices are being circulated. Elk horn has been said to be worth $200 a pound. He explained that for the very best elk horn, or antler that is still in velvet, prices range from $85 to $100 per pound.
"The time to get this horn is when there's a bulb between the fourth and fifth points. It's full of nothing but blood horn. Any later and the estrogen starts to go back into the animal and the antlers start to calcify.
"The problem is, once the horns are cut off they immediately have to be refrigerated. At this stage they're like meat and will spoil. This horn mainly comes from game ranches in Montana," he said.
Schaffler pointed out that regular horn, after it's been naturally dropped by elk, deer and moose, or antler that has calcified, runs between $2 and $8.50 a pound . . . "Depending on the quality."
At the last Jackson Hole, Wyo., auction, one of the more publicized antler markets, he said that because of the bidding competition from Asia, the market went up to $10 a pound.
This year, his company will handle about 350,000 pounds of antlers. About 90 percent of the antlers are picked up after they have been shed, the other 10 percent comes from winter kill and from hunters that turn in the horns after the season.
In most cases it is possible to tell if the horn has been gathered up or removed illegally.
"If it is not legal, then we won't take it. Then what? It's useless unless you've got a buyer," Schaffler said.
The DWR is aware of the problems dealing with trophy animals and is making an concerted effort to catch and prosecute violators. Miyagishima pointed out that public awareness and support from sportsmen can stop the illegal hunting for horns.