JACKSON — Upcoming gatherings like Old West Days and ElkFest have been called off, but officials say it will be tough to stop hundreds of out-of-state folks from piling onto Jackson Hole’s public lands to collect shed antlers.
Speaking in a press conference last week, Gov. Mark Gordon asked residents of states like Idaho and Utah to resist coming to Wyoming to shed hunt to prevent interstate travel and to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The governor even called on anyone crossing over the state’s borders to self-quarantine for two weeks.
But Gordon’s guidance amounts to no more than a recommendation, and people like National Elk Refuge Deputy Manager Cris Dippel say they are anticipating typical chaos and crowds come the May 1 antler-gathering opener.
“I don’t see that stopping people,” Dippel told the Jackson Hole Daily. “Instead of 800 or 1,000 people, we may get 600 or something like that. There may be a few folks who follow that guideline.”
Typically, he said, most elkhorn hunters who target the Bridger-Teton National Forest near the refuge come from Idaho, Utah, Montana and other parts of Wyoming. The activity of antler gathering does not require a permit, so there’s no way to suspend license sales, a strategy some states are taking to deter nonresident and even resident hunters and anglers.
A recent University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model predicted that the peak of Wyoming’s COVID-19 outbreak will come April 29, when daily death tolls could top out at around six people. Shed hunters are poised to arrive at almost the exact same time.
Compounding matters this spring is a confusing web of regulations, triggered in part by a Wyoming Game and Fish Commission decision to push the shed opener to noon May 1 instead of midnight April 30 out of concern for participants’ safety and wardens working through the night.
Jackson Hole’s critical wildlife winter ranges, which are closed to all human entry from December through April, historically opened up to access simultaneous to the onset of shed hunting at midnight.
This year, there’s a 12-hour difference, creating a law enforcement challenge and a temptation for people who can legally hike and ride horses onto the Bridger-Teton, but not touch the antlers that brought them there.
Rob Hoelscher, the acting Jackson District ranger, considered aligning the winter range opening with the new shed hunt start time, but on Thursday he decided against making a change to a closure that’s about much more than shed hunting.
“In order to do that, we’d have to file a whole new closure order,” Hoelscher said. “We’d have to provide the maps and provide the resources for law enforcement to actually enforce the additional closure time.”
Antler prospectors ought to voluntarily refrain from hiking around for the first 12 hours, he said.
“The law is that you’re not supposed to be scouting, piling, marking antlers until noon,” Hoelscher said. “That’s what folks need to adhere to.”
Other changes to access times are also in the works.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department will open the gates to its feedgrounds and habitat management areas at 8 a.m. this year, instead of midnight, spokesman Mark Gocke said.
“The commission is trying to find a fair, equitable, safe and reasonable time that people can start these activities,” Gocke said. “Last year, the Sheridan and Lander regions went to an 8 a.m. opener for those reasons, and we decided to make it consistent across the state.”
Finally, the National Elk Refuge is pushing back the opening of the Refuge Road.
In the past few years, that primary access road for shed hunting through the refuge has opened at midnight to discourage people from trespassing and fording the Gros Ventre River, a dangerous endeavor that drowned a horse and triggered a search-and-rescue mission for shed hunters who were swept downstream when their boat capsized five years ago.
But because of the ongoing infectious pandemic, Dippel is not ensured a detail of additional law enforcement officers this year. So he’s instead opening the road at sunrise — 6:15 a.m. — to discourage trespassing onto the refuge.
“If I can’t bring in people because of COVID,” Dippel said, “then I can’t manage it, and that’s why I’m not going to open the road until daylight.”
To review: The Bridger-Teton National Forest will open at midnight April 30; the Refuge Road opens at 6:15 a.m. May 1; Wyoming Game and Fish elk feedgrounds open at 8 a.m. May 1; and the actual onset of legal shed hunting will be at noon May 1.
“It’s going to be confusing for everybody,” Dippel said.
Parking rules in the town of Jackson will stay the same for shed hunters biding time until the opener, Jackson Police Department Chief Todd Smith said. The easternmost streets in town will be a no-parking zone, and horse trailers will be allowed to set up at the Teton County fairgrounds.
In the past few years, Smith’s staff has tried to curb chronically illegal activity the night of the shed opener by posting the regulations on popular shed hunting message boards and online forums. But communication is a challenge, he said.
“How do you tell 1,000 people — and you don’t know who they are — what you want them to do?” Smith asked. “This isn’t an event that someone is sponsoring. It’s 1,000 people with their own individual plans.”
Most shed hunters, he said, won’t be breaking the law by just showing up.
“Everyone is talking about the governor’s directive, but it’s a suggestion — it’s not a law,” Smith said. “And all of these orders expire on April 30, so it’ll expire the day before unless the governor re-ups those.”
The act of shed hunting probably has a low chance of spreading the novel coronavirus, because people are generally outside and dispersed across the landscape.
But Wyoming Game and Fish commissioner and oil industry businessman Mike Schmid said he is hearing from neighbors who are nervous about the influx of outsiders. His hometown, La Barge, anecdotally doubles in population every May 1, because the nearby Wyoming Range foothills are a hot winter range for mule deer antlers.
Schmid worries shed hunting in western Wyoming could be more popular than ever, with people’s schedules unusually wide open.
“People here are concerned with this,” Schmid said. “We see Utah, Idaho and Colorado folks come here. They can’t go to a restaurant or a bar, but they’re going to be handling gas pumps, going into convenience stores, thumbing through potato chips and all that kind of stuff.”
Schmid wants to see the statehouse somehow prohibit nonresidents.
“There needs to be a stronger measure,” he said. “I don’t like that stuff, but I think in the era we’re in now that it’s the right move. And based on the phone calls that I’m getting, that’s the way the general public feels, too.
“We just need to err on the side of safety,” he said. “It’s one year.”
Michael Pearlman, who heads communications for Gov. Gordon, doesn’t see any obvious solutions. Closing the borders isn’t really in the cards, he said, because it would interrupt interstate commerce.
“I’m not sure what state-level remedies are possible,” Pearlman said. “This is on federal land, so it’s kind of hard for the state to make a policy to counteract [shed hunting].”
Some counties in the West have attempted to address tourism-related COVID concerns internally. On Tuesday, Kane County, Utah, authorized a temporary emergency ordinance prohibiting non-county residents from recreating on its public lands.