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Steep penalties prove ineffective at deterring elk antler heists in Jackson Hole

Law enforcement investigations are resulting in prosecutions, yet large-scale ‘cache’ operations continue to plague off-limits federal land ahead of the open season in western Wyoming.

These antlers recovered from an illegal cache near the National Elk Refuge were used in the felony prosecution of Joshua Anders Rae, who was undeterred by an earlier conviction for doing the exact same thing. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

by Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile

It was the evening before the opener of the 2021 shed antler hunting season, and two U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers could see the flames from a campfire flicker in a closed zone a quarter mile away. 

At just after 9 p.m., they approached the illegal firestarter, who was setting up camp in the Bridger-Teton National Forest on the slopes above the National Elk Refuge. 

“As the officers closed to approximately 40-50 feet, Officer [redacted] stood to the side of a tree and watched the headlamp wearing person take pieces of elk antler and place them into the crevice of a rotten log,” federal law enforcement documents detail. 

Each chunk of antler that dropped into the cache made a distinct “clinking type sound.” Then the man covered his antler cache with debris.

The officers had observed enough to make their case. They snapped on their headlights, approached and asked the man to sit on the ground.

“As this was happening Officer [redacted] recognized the person as the defendant from a 2016 elk antler theft and trespass case in the same closure,” investigators later wrote in a report WyoFile acquired through the Freedom of Information Act

The man was Joshua Anders Rae, who’d been pinched for plundering roughly $10,000 worth of elk antlers from the same area five years prior. His initial conviction and sentencing were publicized, and though he avoided any jail time, it wasn’t especially lenient: five years of unsupervised probation, a five-year revocation of hunting and fishing privileges, $15,000 in fines and a five-year ban from Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and the National Elk Refuge. 

Horse-mounted shed hunters traverse the Bridger-Teton National Forest in front of the Teton Range. (Sam Maher)

Evidently, Rae was undeterred. The former Jackson Hole resident, who now lives in Montana, runs a still-functional dog chew business, Old West Antlers. In 2021, he was back in the same place doing the same thing. 

Again, Rae’s punishment was publicized: This time he was convicted of a felony that came with 90 days of “home confinement,” five years of supervised felony probation, a five-year ban from entering federal public lands and a five-year ban on hunting, the Jackson Hole Daily reported in April 2023. 

Yet, the spate of headlines, including in national publications, has not stomped out antler poachers’ illicit urges — even in the same spot. 

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Attorney’s Office for Wyoming sent out word that Twin Falls, Idaho-resident Jonathan Lee Cox had pleaded guilty to a felony for attempting to transport and sell more than 1,000 pounds of antlers — a nearly $18,000 illegal haul. Once again, the elkhorn poached from the refuge and adjacent national forest was cached. 

David Bonham, the agency’s regional chief of refuge law enforcement, called shed poaching an “ongoing problem” in a Fish and Wildlife Service press release sent Monday. 

A cache of antlers on the National Elk Refuge discovered during an investigation into shed antler poaching by Twin Falls, Idaho resident Jonathan Lee Cox. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

“As the market value of antlers keeps going up,” he said, “we are experiencing more theft and trespassing on the Elk Refuge.” 

Cox was sentenced March 11. He was fined $6,000, banned from Wyoming public lands for three years, and lost all hunting privileges “worldwide” for three years, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service statement. 

Although large-scale illegal antler caching operations have been uncovered in two of the last three years, National Elk Refuge Project Leader Frank Durbian is optimistic that publicity on the successive felony charges still dissuades some would-be-shed poachers. 

“There are probably some people — I would hope — who have reconsidered doing illegal activities based on what they’ve read and seen,” Durbian told WyoFile. “We are actively out there trying to deter them and catch them.” 

There are some inherent difficulties in solving the problem of shed poaching. Antler thieves often operate at night, cache their finds, then recover them with the illusion of legality during the open season. And the landscapes where they operate are vast and rugged: There are dozens of square miles adjacent to the National Elk Refuge where thousands of bull elk drop their antlers. That’s just one spot. Public lands near Wyoming’s 21 state-run elk feedgrounds are also targets. 

“I don’t know if we’ll ever run out of bandits,” Durbian said. “Antlers are a lure, not just as a way to make money, but there are a lot of people simply fascinated with antlers.” 

At least on the National Elk Refuge, no illegal antler caching operations have been uncovered yet this year, Durbian said. Most bulls, he said, have already dropped their antlers. With two weeks to go before the legal shed hunting season, it’s prime time for poachers — and the wardens and officers trying to find them.

“​​Our law enforcement officers are always keeping up with the latest in technology,” Durbian said, “so we can try to stay one step ahead of the poachers that are out there.”

A shed hunter sizes up his hand alongside the widest portion of an elk antler in May 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The typical white male westerner who likes to shed antler hunt in Wyoming will have more rules to abide by this spring. 

For the first time, the pursuit will be restricted to residents from May 1 to May 7. The one-week resident head start, which takes antler gathering regulations to new heights, is the result of legislative changes dating to early 2023. Nonresidents who hunt for horns will need to purchase a conservation stamp for the first time this spring. 

The regulation change could potentially ease the workload for law enforcement officers who get overwhelmed during the antler gathering opener, though Durbian’s not so sure. 

“Maybe there will be more residents interested, because there’ll be fewer non-residents,” he said. “Second, there’s a potential for a second wave of non-residents to come through as well [on May 8]. So it actually puts us in a position where we almost have two openers.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.