CLEARWATER JUNCTION - You want to find an elk antler this spring? Ask Denali, very nicely.
Denali delivered a chestnut brown, 6-point shed recently after a brief walk in the woods behind his home east of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area. His people, Martha and Jerry Swanson, added it to the decorative pile of fallen antlers outside their cabin.
"She's got an incredible nose," Jerry said of the 5-year-old pound dog. "Everybody else all packs up at that east gate, but Denali will go out and find the sheds right here."
The east gate is one of the popular antler-hunting starting points on the WMA, about a mile south of the Swanson place by Shanley Creek. On May 15, it will attract one of the longest-running midnight shenanigans in the territory.
Antler hunting ranks somewhere with mushrooms, huckleberries and gemstones as one of those Montana backcountry obsessions. Those who've never found one wonder why the fuss. Those who've joined the cult can be hard-pressed to explain.
For a while, elk antlers brought big money as aphrodisiacs on the Asian market. Those buyers have faded away, replaced somewhat by furniture and crafts artisans who use them in Western decorating. Many collectors simply line their gardens and fences with them. It's not the having but the getting.
"I don't know how that works for them - looking for antlers in the dark," Jerry Swanson said of this weekend's midnight opener at the Clearwater WMA. "They get their folding chairs out and build bonfires. It's clear some of them see each other once a year. It reminds me of some kind of fair."
Bull elk have been dropping their racks since the end of March. One big concern for biologists is people who stalk elk right at dropping time, hoping to spot antlers as they fall.
Unfortunately, that's right when the cow elk are almost, but not quite, ready to deliver their calves. So the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks closes public access to the WMAs until mid-May to give them some quietude.
Dave Dziak manages the game ranges for FWP's Region 2. He's responsible for 10 properties, totaling 100,000 acres. The Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA makes up nearly half of that.
"I've been in my busy season since last year at this time," he said.
Last week, he was driving his pickup toward a collection of old farm buildings now used by researchers on the Blackfoot-Clearwater. As his truck crested a low rise, he saw about a dozen elk at the edge of the timber. He quickly backed up.
"We try not to move them," he said. "Those cows are carrying your future elk antlers in them."
There's reasonable suspicion that some people hop the fence and stash antlers for later "legal" discovery on May 15. With the advent of global positioning satellites, illegal early birds have even easier options for skullduggery.
"Some folks want to get up and get the jump on other folks," Dziak said. "We put up signs for opening day legal access. Some folks are pretty good about reading signs. Others, not so good."
Elk don't have horns. They have antlers. The difference is that antlers fall off every year, compared to bighorn sheep whose curls keep growing longer as they age. Deer, moose and caribou are the other members of the cervid family in North America that grow antlers.
Caribou females also bear antlers. While they occasionally occur in female deer and elk, biologists say it usually involves an unusual hormone imbalance.
Antlers are actually a kind of bone, and the fastest-growing tissue in any mammal. They sprout off a pair of skull knobs called pedicels. An Alaskan bull moose can put on a pound a day, until it sports a rack weighing 80 pounds.
In early stages, antlers are covered with a fuzzy layer of skin and blood vessels called velvet. In fall, the velvet layer dries out and begins to fall off. Contrary to popular belief, the velvet does not itch. Instead, biologists suspect bucks and bulls rub their antlers on trees and saplings to strengthen their neck muscles for fall sparring matches, and to leave scent marks on the foliage.
Although rodents like to nibble shed antlers, FWP biologist Jay Kolbe said they have little ecological value.
"They get some calcium and trace minerals, but in the grand scheme, it doesn't contribute meaningfully," Kolbe said. "Nobody needs it to survive. It's a treat, but collecting antlers on the ground won't be having an impact."
Humans, on the other hand, seem to be nuts about the racks. Places like the Sun River Game Preserve east of Choteau have attracted such crowds, FWP instituted a noon starting time to manage the rush. The Blackfoot-Clearwater drew slightly less attention, so horn hunters started showing up at midnight of opening day.
"Before the popularity of the pursuit really took off, it wasn't a problem," Kolbe said. "We have some concerns about people moving in the dark. Hazards exist in wild country moving around in the middle of the night."
Next year, the FWP Board of Commissioners plans to standardize all opening times at noon. They've also been steadily increasing the fines and penalties for trespassing on game ranges or taking antlers improperly.
Other public lands like national forests and wilderness areas are open to horn hunting year-round. And after a light winter like this last one, elk herds haven't been concentrated into FWP-controlled winter ranges. But horn hunters should remember to ask permission before scouting private property.
Lots of elk linger in the fields of the Paws Up ranch west of Clearwater Junction. But head outfitter Jeremy Kehrein said those are mainly calving grounds - the bulls drop their antlers mostly in neighboring BLM or private property.
"We don't find a lot of sheds in our area where we have the elk," Kehrein said. "And it's rare we get calls to look here. But we give exclusive right to our guests to look for antlers."
Searchers often reconnoiter fields with binoculars, hoping to spot spikes poking out of the grass. But most of the big bulls and bucks drop their racks in the thicker timber. Those who chase elk with rifles in the fall often have the advantage in spring, when they can employ their memory of trails and bedding sites.
"A lot of these folks just love being around elk and elk country," Dziak said. "They've been cooped up all winter long. It's become a spring sport. Just to find an elk antler and have your hands on it - it's kind of cool."