The search is on for shed antlers

This mule deer buck still has his antlers in early January but may be losing them shortly in the natural cycle of antler loss and regeneration. The search for dropped antlers, called “sheds,” is a popular lure for people seeking winter-time activty.

One fast-growing outdoors pastime has nothing to do with a ball or score.

It’s searching out and collecting dropped antlers, also called “shed antlers.” Discarded by elk and deer in the winter and early spring (moose drop their antlers starting in November) and then regrown later the same spring, elk and deer antlers are among the curious things both hunters and non-hunters acquire.

So popular is shed-antler collecting that in some parts of the U.S. kennels train dogs to find and even retrieve dropped antlers.

It’s been reported top-grade antlers sell for around $10 a pound, which makes it worthwhile if you find an elk shed weighing 10-15 pounds.

However, the market for antler chandeliers and other ornamentation, for years the main demand for shed antlers, is weak.

“Most of the dry hard antlers are going for dog treats,” said Dave Whittlesey of High Wire Ranch on Redlands Mesa. “Almost all the pet stores have dog treats” made of elk antlers.

Whittlesey and his wife Sue, among the pioneers of Colorado’s domestic elk trade, raise commercial elk and buffalo, supplying high-quality meat along with antler products for nutrition and bone and joint health.

As deer and elk antlers grow, they are covered with a soft fuzz, or “velvet,” which provides nutrients to the growing antler.

This layer of velvet skin eventually dries and is discarded when the antler matures.

Dave Whittlesey said commercial elk antlers are harvested while still in velvet, after about 75 days of growth. The frozen antlers are shipped to a certified lab in Wisconsin that produces the capsulated “Elk Velvet Antler” the ranch sells.

“In North America, the main use for antler velvet is as a diet supplement,” Whittlesey said. “It has glucosamine, chondroitin, collagen and lot of other minerals.”

“We primarily sell it for sore joints and inflammation,” he said. “Most of our customers are older people with arthritis.”

Don Schaufler of Antlers Unlimited in Ennis, Mont., the self-described world’s largest dealer of antlers, reported last year selling more than 100 tons of antlers worldwide.

Schaufler said his largest market is Asia, where, according to Asian tradition, deer velvet has medicinal properties.

“Usually they make a tea and drink that,” Whittlesey said. “The biggest use in Asia is for a children’s tonic and some arthritis and heart issues.”

Antler velvet is a big business in New Zealand, where about 1.1 million deer are raised commercially.

Whittlesey said Korea and China have banned the import of antler velvet from the U.S. because of concern over chronic wasting disease in wild elk and deer in the U.S.

A story on the National Geographic website reported antler velvet sometimes is used by athletes claiming it speeds the healing of cartilage and tendon injuries and “boosts strength and endurance.”

Whittlesey agreed, saying antler velvet has anti-inflammatory properties.

“It helps you heal faster,” he said, adding he takes it himself to combat knee inflammation after 30 years of being a carpet layer. “It sure helps me keep walking.”

Elk antler velvet is available in chewable strips for dogs, and is said to be beneficial for dogs with arthritis and joint pain.

However, as the National Geographic reports, there remains enough controversy over powdered antler velvet it is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and currently is banned by the National Football League.


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