Pick up an antler – go to jail for six months

(This article was originally published on the Freedom Foundation blog on April 25, 2013, written by Glen Morgan, while he was the Property Rights Director at the Freedom Foundation.  The original article posting was deleted by the Freedom Foundation in 2017.  It has been reposted here exactly as it was originally written. Some links no longer work and have been removed and some original images are no longer included in the article)

Earlier this week, I was visiting my Uncle and Aunt who live outside Colville, WA.  My uncle and I were out near his property and we found these moose antlers shed on the road.  If you have ever spent much time in the woods, you know this is an exciting discovery and a real treasure.  I’ve found elk and deer antlers before, but I’ve never found moose antlers, let alone a matched set of antlers so easy to locate.  I was excited and I brought these antlers home and showed my children.  Tomorrow, they are bringing them to class as a show and tell project to share with other students.

Fortunately for me, and to the enjoyment of my children and their classmates, I picked up these antlers where it is legal to pick up shed antlers.  It is not legal to do this everywhere.

You read that sentence correctly.  It is illegal, according to Federal Law 36 CFR 2.1(a)(1)(i) to pick up shed antlers in places like the Olympic National Park or Rainier National Park, for example.  In fact, the penalty for picking up an antler in these locations could be up to $5000 and 6 months in jail.  Think about that for a moment.  In a country where criminals who commit serious crimes rarely see significant jail time until they’ve harmed many people multiple times, you can be locked up for 6 months in jail for picking up an antler.

Antlers as I found them

When we talk about the over criminalization of society, this is just one minor, obscure example of how harmless activity can be punished far out of proportion to any conceivable harm caused by the offender.  The frivolous excuse used by the National Parks Service for this extreme penalty is that antlers are eaten by voles, rodents, and other animals and removing them from the wild is harmful to the ecosystem.  While there may be people out there who can suspend disbelief and swallow this story, it really is a classic bureaucratic excuse for just stopping another healthy, normal human activity that hurts nobody and causes no harm – yet it is treated as a major crime.

Despite the claims by the National Park Service that it is terrible for the ecosystem to remove antlers, the Boy Scouts of America are still allowed to pick up shed antlers in Wyoming at the National Elk Refuge under contract since the 1950s and they donate 80% of the auction value of these antlers back to the wildlife refuge itself.  See this great video:

Amazingly, the environment and the ecosystem seems to still be just fine there and everywhere else shed antlers might be removed by humans.   I’m glad I removed these moose antlers and it is wonderful to see how they are used to help educate children about the wonder of nature, the wildlife and the wilderness.  I contacted both the Olympic National Park and Rainier National Park to see how many people have been charged with this terrible crime in Washington State, but as of this time, my calls were not returned.  I will update this post if they can provide me this information.  It is a shame, however, that a harmless activity like picking up an antler can land you in Federal prison, and it does make you think about other, obscure laws which exist out there, and could land you in the slammer for a long time for no true crime. 

Takes 2kids to carry this moose antler

If you have any similar stories about pointless laws with unnecessarily harsh penalties – please email them to me.

UPDATE:  Chuck Young, Chief Ranger for Rainier National Park called me back the day after I posted this article and told me that, “in 6 1/2 years I have never written a ticket or seen a ticket written for this violation at Mt. Rainier.”  I had a good conversation with him, and he mentioned that it would be difficult to find antlers in the terrain and conditions of the park.  He helpfully indicated that the same law would probably apply to the North Cascades National Park and at Lake Roosevelt. 

UPDATE #2:  Colin Smith, Chief Ranger for Olympic National Park called me back a few days later and in his four years at the Olympic National Park, they have prosecuted two people under this law.  However, he indicated that this was a regular problem they had with campers or hikers unknowingly attempting to walk out of the park carrying an antler.  He said in most cases, they just required the violator to throw the antler in the bushes and leave it without a formal infraction.  He indicated that they had more problems with this type of violation at the Olympic National Park than at Rainier because they had a much larger elk herd.  I was glad to hear that they were not inflicting the full penalty of the law on most citizens they caught, but it does imply that the law should probably be changed (if not repealed) to apply only to the large scale collection of antlers for profit – which apeared to be the only two cases they were prosecuting.  If this is how it is actually being enforced, then perhaps the law should be changed to reflect the realities in the park – just a thought to ponder.

In Canadian Parks, the crime of picking up an antler is even worse as indicated in this article. 

Other related articles:

Turning Joggers into Outlaws on Dungeness Spit

Planning to Stifle human ingenuity

Making Rock Stacking illegal


Glen Morgan

Property Rights Director