In recent years, the domestic antler business has been fuelled by another invention: YouTube. In 2006, Eric Chesser, then a twenty-three-year-old former bodybuilder in Utah, began producing videos in which he walked into the woods carrying a camera and discovered an antler. In real life, finding an antler is a small miracle, like stumbling onto a mountain spring. Watching someone find an antler online is about as exciting as buying a bottle of Poland Spring. But Chesser accumulated a following for his content: big bulls, antlers, and muscles. Some of his videos contain advertisements, including one starring Sylvester Stallone’s younger brother promoting a velvet spray that purportedly boosts one’s strength. Chesser now sells autographed antlers to fans and runs a dog-chew company, called RakSnaks. Other YouTubers have followed suit, attempting to garner fame by uploading hunting and shed-hunting videos.
In Utah, those who wish to collect antlers during the early shed season are required to take an ethics course. In 2010, ten thousand people took the course; by 2020, that figure had more than doubled. State and tribal governments are still adjusting to this new wave of interest in antlers, introducing restrictions intended to protect wildlife; Nevada has limited shed hunting in six counties, and Wyoming has created a shed season in previously unrestricted parts of the state. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have instituted a seasonal closure in order to protect a sensitive elk calving ground. “We’re not taught to look at the resource as having monetary value,” Janssen said of antlers. “We gotta battle with the dominant society.”
The confluence of the dog-chew phenomenon and social media has created a uniquely American boom. If the international antler business is built on faith in ancient remedies and the promise of futuristic ones, then the domestic antler business is centered on an illusion of economic freedom derived from the land, and a reality in which performative masculinity caters to the whims of a flourishing pet-wellness industry. Lori Rael, who operates a New Mexico hunting lodge, told me that the sport “used to be way more preserved.” She added, “I’m not a guy, but you know how guys are. They want to be, like, ‘Oh, mine’s bigger.’ ”
Last May, Chesser and Ben Dettamanti, a fellow shed influencer, woke up in the beds of their trucks, where they had spent the night parked near a mountain range in southern Nevada. Dettamanti turned a handheld camera toward himself and started recording: “Plan to be out here for at least three or four days, get some good videos for you guys, get back on this shed-hunting life!”
Dettamanti, who is thirty-seven, is more than six feet tall, with an unruly red beard, and weighs two hundred and sixty-four pounds. “I like to say that I’m the biggest shed hunter,” he told me. On Instagram, where his username is Shedcrazy and he has sixty-three thousand followers, Dettamanti uploads videos that are casual and jokey; he often shed-hunts in an old minivan and likes to make fun of people who wear Patagonia gear. “I want people to share my philosophy, which is not to take the outdoors so seriously,” he said.
Six years ago, Dettamanti was a high-school custodian, shed hunting on the side in order to supplement his income. (Before that, he carved headstones.) He could make twenty thousand dollars a year selling antlers—a good amount, but not enough for him and his wife and children to live on. Dettamanti started producing videos, and Chesser reached out, encouraging him to continue. He realized that, if he couldn’t make a living selling antlers, he might be able to provide for his family by selling the dream of the pursuit. Dettamanti told Chesser that he was considering quitting his job. Chesser suggested that he film himself leaving work for the final time. Dettamanti took his advice, and the video went viral. “The response was just insane,” he said.
The first year after leaving his job, Dettamanti earned around thirty thousand dollars, through ads and sponsorship deals. He has since quadrupled that. “This was always my goal—to earn enough to be able to support my family,” he said. “But then when you get there you’re just, like, ‘Well, maybe I could double it. Maybe we could do a bit more. Maybe I could be rich.’ Eric’s good about keeping me grounded. He reminds me, ‘Four years ago, you were freaking cleaning toilets.’ ”
For all his irreverence, Dettamanti turns serious when it comes to the politics of shed hunting, often using his platform to advocate for less regulation of the sport. Some shed hunters are worried that states might try to end the practice altogether; last year, Dettamanti posted a satirical video predicting a future in which shed hunters are allowed just one antler per year. His role as an activist is precarious: many people in the shed-hunting community blame the new rules on social-media personalities like him, who, by publicizing the sport, have opened it up to more scrutiny. Chesser, for his part, avoids political confrontation. (“Likability is a big thing,” he told me.) He has more than twice as many Instagram followers as Dettamanti.
Before setting up camp, Dettamanti and Chesser discussed the area where they’d be hunting, a series of sagebrush flats and rolling hills studded with piñon and juniper trees. Back when Dettamanti was a custodian, the region was full of antlers for the taking. Now, he predicted, the area will have been “picked over” already by shed hunters. “You just have to blame the damn YouTubers,” he quipped.
On the day of the hunt, Chesser and Dettamanti walked into the morning and separated. (Shed hunting is not much of a collaborative exercise; people follow their impulses and often end up alone.) Near the top of a ridge, Dettamanti saw a forked object: an elk antler. It was grade-A bone, freshly dropped this season. Its main beam appeared thin and rangy, and its color was light; it weighed a little more than seven pounds. He approached the antler and filmed it from all angles. “Fricking sweet,” he said. “So stoked.” Later, back at camp, Chesser measured the antler, calculating that it would produce nearly four hundred dollars’ worth of dog chews. In the evening, the men spoke about the future: they were both concerned that YouTube had tightened restrictions on sponsored videos, requiring users to label branded content as advertisements. Dettamanti said, “Who knows? It could all just fricking go away.”
That summer, antler brokers on the side of rural highways in New Mexico and Wyoming were paying sixteen dollars per pound, and there were rumors that the Jackson auction might bring record prices. The event, which is normally held near the arches in Jackson’s town square, had been moved online in 2020, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Cliff Kirkpatrick, who has helped oversee the auction for the past three decades, was preparing for a spirited in-person return in the fall of 2021. A gray-haired carpenter with woolly eyebrows, Kirkpatrick was the district committee chairman for the Jackson Boy Scouts, who receive a quarter of the auction’s proceeds. (The rest goes to the National Elk Refuge, which uses the funds to maintain equipment, such as irrigation lines.) Each year, Kirkpatrick has spent hundreds of volunteer hours organizing the event. Does he have a particular interest in antler? “It’s really about the Scout involvement,” he told me. “It’s been an effective fund-raiser.”
The past few auctions have taken in two hundred thousand dollars on average, with much of that money coming from Rumsey, the broker in Idaho and Wyoming. She entered the industry shortly after her brother, who had been buying for Schaufler, died, in 1989. (She worked briefly with Schaufler before venturing out on her own. “It’s kind of a dog-eat-dog business,” Schaufler told me.) Rumsey and her husband own a furniture store called Wild West Designs, which has outlets in Jackson and Idaho Falls. The shop is known for its chandeliers made from interwoven antlers; Rumsey sells them for thousands of dollars. But she also exports antlers and sells to a dog-chew distributor. In September, when I asked Rumsey what sort of antler she’d look for at the auction, she replied, “All of it.”
But, with the Delta variant spreading, Kirkpatrick received word that he would have to move the auction online again. The timing—just weeks before the auction—was inopportune; by the time Kirkpatrick circulated the final details, a few buyers had already left their homes on cross-country drives. “I’m overwhelmed and exhausted,” he told me a week before the event. From an office in his home, he uploaded photos and wrote descriptions of pallets. “It’s just lot after lot after lot, and they’re all antler,” he said. “You start describing every one as unique and beautiful, and pretty soon they’re all unique or beautiful.” When I asked why he continued running the auction as an unpaid volunteer, he said, “I can’t find someone to replace me.” He despaired of the decadence in Jackson and noted, “People would rather write a check than volunteer.”
On the day of the event, prices rose to previously unseen heights: online buyers offered more than thirty dollars per pound. A bidding war broke out over a deadhead that had antlers resembling a caribou’s. A heating specialist from Rhode Island won the item, outbidding a heating specialist from Utah. Schaufler placed bids from Montana; Rumsey bid from her Jackson home while a repairman worked on her hot tub. She won the largest lots. Schaufler later grumbled about the exorbitant prices. “I don’t need ’em that bad,” he said. Rumsey had committed $126,827. Later that day, she arrived at the National Elk Refuge, where great piles of antlers lay taped together. She walked over to a folding table and asked the Boy Scouts’ district treasurer, who was sitting there, “Would somebody like a check?”
In the spring of 2021, a group of shed hunters in New Mexico, driving in a truck with a plastic antler hanging from the rearview window, discussed the recent changes to their beloved sport. “The Internet’s ruined everything,” Stuart Church, a thirty-four-year-old hunting guide, said. “The golden years are over for everything.”
Most of the people in the truck, who had grown up together in the small town of Questa, had spent the previous night at a campsite deep in the Carson National Forest. But one of them, a thirty-two-year-old plumber named Zeke Tapia, had been up since 3 A.M., driving more than a hundred miles from Albuquerque to meet up with his friends. He did not appear tired, and he was more optimistic than Church. “If you have respect for something you love, it’s going to respect you back,” he’d said a moment earlier. He looked out the window; there was snow all around. “They’re in there,” he said of the sheds. “They’ll be glowing, boys. They’ll be glowing!”