Missoula Bucks Lightening their Loads


Hiking on the outskirts of Missoula last week, I saw some familiar faces of bucks I’ve photographed over the past year, minus a key component: the bones on their heads.

February is antler-shedding month for many whitetails and mule deer around western Montana. Some bucks toss their headgear earlier, some later, but the bulk have either just shed or are on the cusp.

Bull moose generally drop their antlers earlier in the winter, while bull elk seem to find March the best month to lighten their load.

If one antler falls off before the other, the animals can have a hard time walking straight, even stumbling in circles for a time, lopsided by 30 pounds or more depending on the size of the animal.

To see how you’d compare, try wearing a beer helmet with a full keg strapped over one ear. Then go jump a barbwire fence.

There are a variety of reasons for this phenomenon. Getting rid of their antlers allows deer, elk, and moose to go incognito for a time, either in small bands of bosom buddies or pleasantly ambiguous among the larger herds of females and younger animals.

This adds a margin of protection at a time of year their bodies are most haggard from the long winter and least able to escape predators. It also prepares them to grow their next, larger set of antlers, unless they are so old as to be shrinking.

It likewise creates a harvest festival of sorts for the many antler lovers among us.

We scamper around in the ice and snow trying to be the first find the natural treasures. It’s a great way to beat the late-winter doldrums, but requires steadfast care and respect for the stressed wildlife that inhabit these same areas. At no time are deer, elk, and moose more vulnerable to starvation and predation.

That’s especially true in a winter like this where a heavy snow-crust covers much of their forage. Every calorie counts, and being pushed around by aggressive antler collectors can sap enough energy to kill the very animals we’re celebrating, and help assure a lesser bounty next year. Don’t be that person.

Mount Jumbo and the surrounding area to its north are closed to protect wintering elk and mule deer, as is Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area south of Seeley Lake, the Sun River Game Range west of Augusta and other areas.

Check with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department to assure any area you shed hunt in is open.




Get more of Montana’s great outdoors with some of Paul’s other posts, The 20 Best Montana Outdoors Photos of 2011 and How to Lose a Staring Contest with an Elk, or visit his blog archive.


Paul Queneau is an avid outdoor recreationist, naturalist, and hunter. He works as conservation editor of Bugle Magazine at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, where he writes about, photographs, edits, and films wildlife. See and read more of his work on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s website and Paul’s photo portfolio.