It must have been April, the sun strong but the weather still dangerous and capricious, with great squalls of snow that boiled and whirled from the canyons on the other side of the valley. The wind that carried the scent of warming earth and cottonwood buds in late morning shifted every hour or so to a cold snow-smelling blast from the north. The old pickup with the 400 Industrial Cleveland motor that seemed so powerful and cool when we bought it at the end of the fall treeplanting season sat idle in the driveway, since it used so much gasoline and now we didn’t have any money. The homemade propane tank that fueled the furnace was empty, and the house was the same temperature as outside, but with the sun coming in the windows, that didn’t seem so desperate anymore. I’d driven a tractor for two days dragging fields, signed on to move some beehives, took down and rolled up a half-mile of fence, fed cattle for my neighbor. Cash a paycheck at the Cenex, buy gas and beer and have twenty bucks left over at best. There was no work anywhere that I wanted to do. It was time to go hunt shed horns.
By noon I was at about 6,500 feet in the Sapphires, postholing a wide tongue of crusted snow on the north face of a gully. I had a matched pair of four-point elk antlers sticking out of the top of my pack and inside a little four-point mule deer shed. The snow had been burned away by the sun everywhere that faced south or west, and I had made good time, walking fast, following the old trails beaten in by hundreds of years of the passage of elk and deer, following fresh tracks, always looking for the tell-tale shapes of the antlers, that rich shade of brown and ivory against the snow or the wet duff. Certain places were more likely to pay off. Fencelines that required a leap to dislodge an antler already about to fall were good, as were funnels where the trails passed beneath low hanging Doug firs. My favorites were creek crossings or the abrupt terrain shift at the very toe of a slope, the jarring place where I had once found a matched set of five point horns lying side by side.
When the light changed to afternoon, the clouds built and I was at the head of Gird Creek, which was still quiet, not yet into its snowmelt-fueled rise. Lion tracks, melted out as big as saucers and lined out across a drift of hard snow. The intensity of searching for the horns had worn me out, and it was a relief to the eyes to take the long view for a change, to look out over the Bitterroot Valley, study the little Monopoly city of Hamilton far away and below, the river like a twist of mercury flowing through, the towering yellow white cliffs of Blodgett Canyon or Mill Creek beyond, all the great rock climbs and peaks there waiting.
In those days, Larry Rose, the Town Marshal of Darby, bought horns for fair prices at his brother Wayne’s taxidermy shop on Main Street, the one that had the mounted musk ox in the window. Maybe he still does. A lot has happened in the years since then, including Wayne’s conviction for killing two wolves off the Northfork Road in the Big Hole, and the arrival of about 15,000 new residents to the valley. But that day, Larry Rose looked at the horns I’d brought in, weighed them, calculated the payment at $7 a pound, and wrote me out a check for over a hundred bucks, pure found money, as good as any I’ve ever made. We talked a little about where I was living, on a defunct mule ranch near Corvallis, and it turned out that he’d lived there, too, when he was a child, his family working on the old Horn Ranch, gone now for fifty years. We shook hands and I walked out onto the main drag of Darby, stuck out my thumb, and started walking north, well-heeled and uttterly happy.
I don’t hunt shed horns with the same fervor as I used to. In the years since that day, as prices hit $9 during the mid-90’s it all became a bit too much of a circus. Shed hunters became so aggressive that they stampeded elk on the game ranges, right at the hardest part of the winter when the cow elk and doe mule deer were bred and fat supplies at their lowest. Snowmobiles and ATVs inevitable entered the game. It was the most familiar of American trajectories. If a few shed horns is good, wouldn’t several truckloads be even better? And think how many more we could get if we used our brains, and strung a tight, head-high cable between those aspens before we rushed the herd! State wildlife officials made the decision in the late 1990’s to close the game ranges from the end of hunting season on December 1st through the 15th of May. The decision was expected to be extremely controversial, since the game ranges, which were purchased outright over the past hundred years to provide winter range and lessen wildlife conflicts with landowners, were increasingly used by hikers and mountain bikers and horseback riders. But the closure actually met very little resistance. The same public feeling that generated the idea to purchase the lands in the first place — that wildlife was an integral part of Montana –seemed to spill over in an unusual public willingness to let the ranges serve their original purpose. I was all for the closures and so was just about everybody I knew, but you could feel the shift. I lived at the western border of the Calf Creek Game Range, and had walked there almost every day, every winter. A little bit of freedom had drained away from the freest place I had ever lived.
Since that day, too, I was made acquainted with the ins and outs of the horn trade, which dampened my enthusiasm some. I’ve seen the great gathering warehouses of the buyers with the thousands of pounds of shed horn of every description, readying for shipment to China and Korea, where it is ground up and prized as an aphrodisiac and tonic. I guess there’s no harm in that, really, especially not compared to the rise of the velvet antler industry in the eighties and early ’90′s, where the same Korean markets purchased huge lots of immature, soft, antlers amputated from elk confined on game farms throughout the west. The velvet was running $125 plus per pound for awhile, and an elk ranch (which also sold “trophy hunts” until the practice was outlawed in Montana by ballot initiative) not far from where I lived was a major producer. As the antler grows, it becomes one of the most sensitive tissues known. A bull elk, it is believed, can feel a fly tickling as it walks along the farthest tines of the growing antler. Such radical sensitivity is related to the fantastic level of proprioception — the understanding of how the body relates to the space around it — that bull elk demonstrate after the antlers harden in the fall. That level of proprioception becomes clear when the bulls spar and fight in the fall, and in the way a masssive-racked bull can flee at breakneck speed though a thicket of lodgepole and alder and never once have its antlers collide or catch on a treetrunk or limb.
The game farms used special vices to hold the bulls, a modified squeeze chute like those used by cattle handlers, which immobilized them while the soft antlers were sawed off. Anesthesia was ruled out because the vascularity of the tissue was so extraordinary that any drugs in the bull’s system were immediately delivered into the antler tissues. Elk ranchers also used electrical immobilization devices to restrain the bulls while the velvet was being harvested, hooking one electrode to the animal’s lip and another to a probe in its rectum and jazzing it with paralyzing jolts of current.
The Korean velvet market, which had always been both primary and volatile, began to feel the effects of the new pharmaceutical erectile dysfunction drugs, and then the mad-cow disease cousin Chronic Wasting disease appeared in the domestic elk and deer industry. When Canadian elk ranchers shipped a herd of live elk to South Korea in 1995, one of the bulls soon succumbed to the brain malady, which remains one of the most unsettling and lethal communicable brain diseases known. After that experience the Koreans embargoed further shipments of antler from Canada. The price for shed antlers has held around $5 to $7 per pound since then.
These days, a lot, if not most, of the shed horns that people pick up find their way into the crafts industry, making chandeliers and furniture that seem most attractive to the newcomers in the vast log and timberframe homes that have gone up everywhere. Others are picked up by private collectors, usually people who love to hunt, and are possessed of that obsession with horns that drives them out to pursue big game in the first place. You can see them at the trailheads, sitting on the tailgates of their trucks, using a tape to measure brow tines, circumference, length, calculating what the animal would “score” on the Boone and Crockett rating scale of North American big game. It can seem pretty silly, unless you are, as I am, touched with the edge of the same fever for big game animals and how impressive they can actually get. At its worst that fever turns living creatures into numbers and bragging rights for hunters who have missed the point of the game. At its best it tranlates into respect for the power of the natural world and of an individual animal who has beaten tremendous odds, across the board, to attain age and grandeur.
And of course, for any hunter, a huge shed horn is the perfect indicator that you are hunting in the right place, that next year, the bull or buck that shed that horn will be somewhere near there, bigger than ever. It is kind of like holding hope and expectation in your hand in the form of bone.
Near where I live now, the Sun River Game range opens to shed hunters on May 15th, and the campers and horse trailers and the obsessors and the beer chuggers start arriving a few days before. For the horn-crazed scofflaws who hunt the range before legal opening, there have been some surprises. A few years ago, local wardens Larry Davis and Steve Vinnedge picked up a spectacular shed horn on the range and drilled it out, placing a “mort” signal transmitter — the kind that beeps continuously when a collared animal stops moving, indicating that it is probably dead — inside and then carefully closing the hole with epoxy and a plug of horn. Davis dropped the loaded horn on a hillside above a small pothole lake on the range, in a place where it could be seen with binoculars from the road. It swiftly disappeared.
The wardens had been seeing a little green mini-van with Ravalli County license plates buzzing up and down the washboard roads near the game range, and they were pretty sure that their horn was in it, heading south. A few days later, Vinnedge took a day off and drove down to the Bitterroots, following what he hoped was the trail. He and Joe Jaquith, the warden from Hamilton, climbed up to a promontory high on the west side of the valley and broke out the telemetry gear. Sure enough, the mort signal appeared, a faint beeping that seemed to be coming from somewhere near Corvallis. When they descended to the valley, though, the signal died. So they took a plane up, circling the valley. The signal did not return, and they set the gear down, resigned to defeat. As the plane prepared to land at the airport north of Hamilton, though, the signal came back strong, and held. The wardens located the green mini-van below them, landed and rove to the house where it was parked. The horn was still on the back seat. The owner was charged with criminal trespass. “He went up in front of the judge in Helena,” Vinnedge told me, “who is very tired of seeing people jump that fence when it is common knowledge that there is this one time of year when you have to respect these animals’ space.”
Vinnedge and Davis both told me that they still seed the range with a few loaded horns every year.
The legal opening of the range has become an event, a local boost for the bars and grocery store. It’s mostly peaceful. Since the range is also used by grizzly and black bears gorging on winterkill, almost everybody carries bear spray, and at least once the old competitive urge mated to the lure of the spray has made for trouble. A group of horn hunters in a pickup were lurching along a game range road when a rider on an ATV effortlessly passed them, outrunning them to the prime country above. The affront was too much for one of the men in the back of the pickup, who waited until the rider was alongside, then let fly with a high-pressure burst of hot pepper, hoping to shut him down. It worked. “You ever been shot with that stuff?” Vinnedge asked me. I said I’d only felt the effects of it when the wind blew it on me after using it to break up a dogfight. “Well, it’s like having your eyes put out, and your lungs closed off,” he said. “We hunted that guy all day long, and finally found him and arrested him for assault.”
If I go to the opening of the game range this year, it will be as a reporter rather than a horn hunter, more to study the behavior of the humans than to look for the leavings of the great herds, which by then will be scattered deep in the Bob Marshall wilderness. But there are a few places I know I’ll be looking, a hidden coulee system far to the east of here where I tried unsuccessfully to sneak up on a monarch mule deer buck last hunting season, a few unfrequented valleys that I have so far seen only on maps. I hope I never get over that thrill of seeing that shed horn in that patch of newly green bunchgrass, or lying in the snow and mud of a game trail. Shed horns are just more dramatic than the other riches of the woods, the morels, the huckleberries, the tasty little trout of the headwaters. You pick up a horn, big or small, and hold it in your hands, breathe in the scent of the creature who owned it. He’s out there somewhere. He’s made it through another winter to the easy wonders of spring. So have I. And so, if you are reading this, have you.