Law Enforcement: Drop that Rack, or I’ll Vaporize You

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Outside magazine, July 1996

Law Enforcement: Drop that Rack, or I’ll Vaporize You

Yellowstone’s infamous Antler Wars enter a new phase
By Todd Wilkinson

“It’s fine with us if they believe there’s a camera lurking behind every tree,” says Brian O’Dea, criminal investigator for Yellowstone National Park. “If they come into the park with ideas of getting rich, we’ll be waiting for them.”

“They” are Yellowstone’s infamous horn hunters, people who scavenge for antlers shed by the park’s massive herds of elk each spring and then sell their quarry for profit. Indeed, the antler theft problem in the nation’s oldest national park is getting worse–in 1995 poachers collected an estimated $500,000 worth of antlers, more than in any previous year. In one
much-talked-about case, a pack of high-school-age kids, apparently in need of some extra spending money, slaughtered a bull elk for its horns and left the carcass to rot on a mountainside. Most disturbing, though, was the disappearance a few years ago of Dan Campbell, a Yellowstone-area man last seen in the park and now presumed dead. Authorities say that he was a horn hunter and
was probably murdered in a bloody dispute over turf.

If O’Dea comes off a tad cocky despite the trouble in his park, there appears to be good reason for it. Last spring, his department received shipment of high-tech surveillance equipment from the U.S. military, including high-resolution satellite imaging devices, dime-sized radio trackers, remote-controlled ground cameras, and powerful night-vision gear. And this month–which is
high season for velvet antlers, the new-growth horns coveted for their rarity–O’Dea wants all park visitors to know that if you plan to traipse past Mammoth Hot Springs in search of sprawling trophy racks for your mantle, you will be treated to a Desert Storm-style surprise.
“The poachers know everything about us,” says chief ranger Dan Sholly. “Our radio frequencies, how many patrol cars we’re using, where our rangers are stationed. Now we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve, too.”

Home to the world’s largest congregation of wild elk, Yellowstone has been the epicenter of the elk antler trade for more than a century. After being plucked from the pine forests and fields of buffalo grass and sagebrush, they’re sliced into wafers and sold as aphrodisiacs and folk medicines in Asia for up to $300 per ounce. Closer to home, the horns are crafted into expensive
Western-style furniture and sold in resort communities. As businesses go, it sounds reasonably benign, but the competition for antlers has, to say the least, spun out of control lately, with small cartels carving up park territory and then protecting it with semiautomatic weapons.
“In some ways, it’s not that different from mafia wars,” says Sholly. “Kids are even getting involved.”

Of course, law enforcement hasn’t been standing by, totally helpless. More than 100 horn hunters have been arrested in the last three years. But despite the risks, the profit is still irresistible to some. “You can pocket $3,000 in a few hours,” says O’Dea. “It’s hard to find work that pays that well around here–or anywhere else.”

And so, as the park begins to fill with visitors in this its busiest season of the year, and as small tribes of horn hunters skitter back into the hills to look after their turf, can our stiff-brimmed men and women, underdogs though they may be, finally win the Antler Wars, now that they have earth-orbiting satellites on their side?

“To be honest, we don’t know if any of this stuff is going to translate into more people behind bars,” says O’Dea. “But I bet they’ll think twice before stealing if they believe somebody’s watching from outer space.”