JACKSON — Moments after the final instructions were given, a couple of dozen Boy Scouts, their parents and volunteers set out across the National Elk Refuge in search of shed antlers, the last remnant of a long winter now that the snow has melted across the refuge.
The boys taking off in the McBride area hit the ground on a near-dead sprint, quickly breaking into smaller groups and spreading out across the rolling hills.
Two 12-year-old boys, Paedon Hare and William Yetter, both seasoned with years of shed hunting experience, were among the first to fill their arms.
Hare and Yetter knew just where to look, diligently scouring a patch of sagebrush where they’d just come upon a weathered elk spine.
Hare held on to a seven-point shed, musing over how big its owner must be.
“I’m going to get my hunting license this summer,” he said. “Archery, rifle, shotgun.”
“I’ve already killed an animal,” Yetter said back.
“What’d you kill?”
“A deer. Buck.”
“Yeah, a six-point.”
Between the two of them, they said, they have nine years of shed hunting experience, and conversations like theirs have surely played out for half a century among the Scouts before them.
Cliff Kirkpatrick is the Jackson district committee chairman for the Scouts. For as long as he has been involved in the project — which sends local Scouts out on the refuge to gather the valuable antlers — he said it’s largely been the same story for the kids.
“It’s out beating the hills and the sagebrush,” he said. “Keeping your head on a swivel and trying to pick up an antler.”
Collecting some 8,000 pounds of antlers is only the beginning, for both the Scouts and the refuge. Once collected, the antlers are sorted by pairs and size and prepared for auction.
They’ll be auctioned the Saturday before Memorial Day at Town Square, where sheds have sold in recent years for up to $20 a pound.
“There aren’t too many things that essentially shut down the Town Square for a weekend, but this does,” Refuge Manager Brian Glaspell said of the event, which is entering its 52nd year. “The pride that people have in [the auction] is really palpable when you’re there. You’re walking up and down the town streets and everything is filled with antlers, and all the talk is about wildlife and the Elk Refuge.”
Beyond the talk, the shed hunting and selling project goes much further for the refuge, and for the Scouts. The two split proceeds from the auction, with 75 percent of the funds raised from the auction going directly to habitat and wildlife management projects at the refuge, Glaspell said.
“Not only is it enjoyable, it’s extremely important for the refuge, and for the Scouts,” former manager Steve Kallin said, taking a break from his duties, now done as a volunteer. “It generates some funding that both need, and serves a really important purpose for both organizations.”
For the refuge, its $8 million irrigation system is run entirely by the funds raised from the auction. That irrigation system is critical for watering the natural forage for the elk that winter there, and it cuts down on the costs of the alfalfa pellets the refuge purchases to ensure there’s enough food to go around during the harshest parts of the Wyoming winter.
“At the end of the day, we can’t turn that on or off and prepare it and maintain it in any given year if not for the money that we raise through the antler auction,” Glaspell said.
The partnership between the Scouts and the refuge is much deeper than the hunt and the auction anyway, he said. With the Scouts spending many hours throughout the year volunteering with the refuge, the annual antler hunt and the auction serves almost as their reward.
“The Scouts put in more than 2,000 hours a year supporting the event, whether it’s today, or the auction, or all the pre- and post-work,” he said. “It’s a year-round relationship — it’s not just about this day or the auction.”
But for Kirkpatrick, who has listened to Scouts across more than three decades tell their favorite tales from their time in uniform, the hunt itself is forever a standout.
“When you talk to somebody who is 40 years old who grew up in Jackson, ‘What do you remember from Scouting?’” he said. “If they were in Cub Scouts they remember the Pinewood Derby, and they always remember the antler pickup.”