NACHES -- A half-dozen elk antlers collected over three decades of hunting and exploring the Cascade foothills adorn the living room of Gerald Michael's Nile Valley home.
He can't understand why someone would need more of those antlers, or "sheds," especially if it means terrorizing the bull elk until the antlers simply come off during the chase.
Which is precisely what he and his buddy, Toby Abrams, are convinced some overeager shed hunters were doing not quite two weeks ago.
Michael often takes his three grandchildren up to see the elk that feed at a small state wildlife department elk-feeding site on U.S. Forest Service land up the 1600 road out of the Nile. This time, Michael was going up with Abrams to see if they could get the binoculars on a big bull he'd seen.
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But the elk they saw on the distant slopes weren't resting, conserving what remained of their fat content and energy through the final weeks of winter.
"The elk were a lot freaked out," Abrams recalls. "That's what got me thinking there's got to be some people out here moving them. I'm a hunter. I know how animals react."
Eventually, the two local business owners eventually spotted men, all on foot.
"Here's these elk running all over," says Michael, "and these guys running around chasing them."
Whether the shed hunters were actually chasing the elk or simply looking for antlers doesn't matter, as far as Oak Creek Wildlife Manager John McGowan is concerned.
"These are herd animals," McGowan says. "Somebody says, 'Oh, there's no elk here,' and they park their car and walk up to the ridge, and there's 200 elk there. And that one guy will chase 200 elk. One will run and they'll all take off.
"And of that 200 head, there are some that are already very near death in February, March and April, and they'll run also, even if they're just hanging on to that last little bit of energy. And they won't make it the next two weeks, or the month. They will die."
In a way, the state's feeding program, designed to help the elk through the winter, may also be attracting the shed hunters who might hasten their demise.
Although elk-populated state wildlife areas in Central Washington are closed until May 1 to prevent disturbance to wintering elk at feed sites, overzealous shed hunters often ignore the signs. One snuck onto Oak Creek -- on a hillside just above the wildlife area headquarters -- and made off with a large shed just a couple weeks ago.
"I think every year this situation we have is getting worse," said Bruce Berry, McGowan's assistant manager at Oak Creek. "Back in the mid-'90s there were almost no big bulls here, before the spike-only (hunting) law. Now we have thousands of people coming to the feed site and they're looking out and seeing all these big bulls. A lot of these folks probably just see dollar signs on those bulls' heads."
Terry Betker, a longtime shed hunter who uses elk antlers to create Native American artwork such as chandeliers and decorative lamps, takes issue with the elk-feeding program -- and even the closure -- for that very reason.
"The feeding program, the shed hunting -- they kind of collide. It gets (the elk) all in one area," he says. "All them people come in and see the bulls. These are people, they get their elk tag and get one crack at a spike unless they get drawn (for a bull or cow tag), and then they come in and see hundreds of bulls in there."
It's a vicious cycle. As shed hunting becomes more popular, more arrive at Oak Creek, to pick around the periphery -- not necessarily in the closed area, but in the surrounding national forest area in which many of the elk disperse. And as more arrive, others begin to arrive -- earlier.
A couple of weeks ago, McGowan left his business card on a vehicle parked near the Nile elk feed site, asking the owner to call him. When he got the call, McGowan also got an earful.
The man, a Western Washington resident, told McGowan he'd been hunting sheds around Oak Creek for 10 years, and used to wait until May 1, but more recently has been frustrated because people are showing up in those hills on ATVs, and they were finding all of the shed antlers.
"What's interesting was, what did he not say?" McGowan muses. "Here's a guy who used to wait until May 1 to look for sheds, and now he's over here in early March looking for them. And that's the whole philosophy now -- maybe there's these people who respect the animals, but they don't find any antlers because of the cheaters. And the next year, they're out there earlier. And the year after that, even earlier."
And that's disturbing to people like Gerald Michael and Toby Abrams, who -- when they saw those elk being moved around by overzealous shed hunters -- called state wildlife enforcement officers.
But because the elk-protection closure is in effect only the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, the shed hunters weren't in violation. That doesn't make Michael and Abrams any less irked by what they saw. One of the shed hunters, a man from Seattle, later told Michael and Abrams he had more than 100 sheds at his house.
"We all love to hunt them and we all love to find a horn every now and then, but it's not worth stressing them out," Abrams said. "The way I see it, these elk are still being hunted."