A commercial antler dealer and repeat shed poacher from Montana pleaded guilty to a felony charge and multiple misdemeanor charges for illegal shed hunting in Wyoming. The charges against Joshua Anders Rae stem from two separate shed-poaching incidents that occurred on public land in 2016 and 2021. Rae was sentenced in October, but the U.S. Forest Service released details of the investigation on April 21, just ahead of Wyoming’s traditional May 1 shed season opener.
In both incidents, officials caught Rae collecting and caching elk antlers inside Bridger-Teton National Forest boundaries during a closed season. Investigators revealed that Rae owns and operates Old West Antlers, an online dog chew retailer. Evidence suggested that Rae was planning to sell the illegally collected sheds for a profit. A Bozeman resident, Rae was sentenced in October 2022 for violating both the Lacey Act and the terms of his probation.
“In April 2021, Law Enforcement officers patrolling a winter range closure outside Jackson, Wyoming encountered Rae hiding illegally collected antlers under the cover of darkness,”reads the USFS press release. “Rae had cut approximately 44 pounds of illegally collected antlers into short sections some of which were consistent with those sold through his online enterprise. The April 2021 violations occurred while Rae was on federal probation for a 2019 misdemeanor Lacey Act conviction for the same offense in the same area.”
Officers made this 2021 discovery on April 30, just one day before Wyoming’s shed hunting season opened. The timing suggests Rae was stashing the illegally found antlers on public ground and then waiting for the season to open before he could recover them as if he’d legally discovered them during an open season. This is a common tactic among shed poachers in the West, according to past reporting by Jackson Hole News and Guide.
“Rae, who entered the closure by traveling cross country a significant distance, was present in the area the day before the legal opening date,” the Forest Service explained, “thus depriving numerous shed hunting enthusiasts of equal enjoyment and opportunity during the highly regulated opening day event outside Jackson, Wyoming.”
Rae’s history of shed hunting illegally on public land in Wyoming dates back to April 2016, when federal law enforcement officers in the Bridger-Teton National Forest received a tip about “unknown persons unlawfully entering the National Elk Refuge” outside of Jackson, Wyoming. The refuge would have been closed to public access at this time, as it is every year from January 1 to April 30. These closures are enacted to minimize stress on wildlife populations in the winter, and a Wyoming Game and Fish Commission regulation explicitly prohibits the collection of shed antlers on public land during this timeframe.
Following up on the tip, federal investigators found 15 caches of freshly cut elk antlers buried throughout the refuge. They surveilled these caches over the following months, and on June 2, 2016, they stopped Rae in his truck as he was leaving the Bridger-Teton National Forest towing a horse trailer.
“Officers found 104 pounds of cut elk antlers inside his stock panniers that were determined to be from the hidden caches,” reads a press release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Officers later collected antlers from the remaining cache sites, which weighed an additional 410 pounds.”
For that offense, Rae pleaded guilty in 2019 to illegally possessing and transporting more than 100 pounds of unlawfully taken elk antlers. As part of a plea deal, Rae was sentenced to five years of unsupervised probation and received a five-year ban from the Nation Elk Refuge, Grand Teton National Park, and Yellowstone National Park. He also lost his hunting privileges for five years and was ordered to pay $15,000 in restitution to the Wyoming Fish and Game Department.
By April 2021 Rae had changed the name of his business, but he was still caching elk antlers on National Forest land at night. That was when officers found the roughly 44 pounds of elk antlers that had already been cut for dog chews.
Not surprisingly, the repeat nature of Rae’s wildlife crimes led federal prosecutors to push for bigger penalties last year. In March 2022, he was indicted by a federal grand jury for a felony violation of the Lacey Act, along with misdemeanor violations for entering a closed area and collecting shed antlers out of season.
Rae pleaded guilty to those charges in July 2022. And because the April 2021 violation occurred while he was still on federal probation, Rae entered a second guilty plea for violating the terms of his probation during his sentencing in October. Ultimately Rae was sentenced to 90 days of home confinement and five years of supervised felony probation. He was also banned from hunting and from entering federal public lands for five years.
Shed Hunting in Wyoming
The federal agency’s announcement about Rae’s most recent guilty plea comes at an interesting time, as shed hunting regulations are currently in flux in Wyoming. In February, the state legislature gave the Wyoming Game and Fish Department more authority to regulate shed hunting, and the agency has already tightened its regulations by giving resident shed hunters a week-long head start over nonresidents. The rule change is designed to alleviate pressure on big game herds, which has increased significantly as shed hunters from around the country have flocked to Wyoming’s public lands in recent years. The rule change goes into effect in 2024.
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More immediate changes to Wyoming’s shed-hunting season are also underway: During a public meeting in March, WGFD Director Brian Nesvik hinted at possibly postponing this year’s shed hunting season. Nesvik said this was an important consideration given the above-average winter mortality that has devastated some of the state’s deer, elk, and antelope herds.
On April 25, WGFD followed up by announcing an “emergency extended closure” of shed hunting in southwest Wyoming to protect big game herds that are still on their winter ranges. This means the region’s shed-hunting season won’t open on public lands until May 15, instead of the usual May 1 opener. Teton County is not included in the emergency closure area.
“Big game animals have experienced a tough winter and are highly vulnerable to human-caused disturbances, such as being moved around by people on the landscape gathering antlers,” WGFD chief Rick King said on Tuesday. “The unnecessary use of energy and undue stress can increase mortality. Postponing the shed antler collection in some areas of the state will help minimize stress, protect big game and increase their chance of survival.”