Long before Washington’s big game hunting seasons begin each year, hunters of a different sort seek the same prized antlers.

Shed hunting, the search for the racks left each year by male deer and elk, continues to grow in popularity as a fun outdoor activity without the hassle and bureaucracy of traditional hunting. But its increasing prevalence brings potential problems for wildlife and more money into the equation, raising some ethical and legal questions.

Oak Creek Wildlife Area manager Greg Mackey said he’s seen a clear increase in shed hunting over the past few years. That led to the creation of a seasonal closure in the mid-1990s to protect weaker wintering elk, just as more of a market began appearing for antlers.

“It’s a commercial venture for them,” Mackey said. “Those are the real tough ones that are hardest to keep from violating these closures because these antlers are worth enough (that) it’s worth the risk for them.”

Enforcement captain Bob Weaver said markets can vary and he’s seen antlers priced anywhere from $10-$18 per pound, depending on the type and condition. Wildlife officers get frequent reports of — and sometimes catch — shed hunters in closed areas, where they face a minimum penalty of a $100 fine and potentially a revocation of their hunting licenses if the crime reaches the level of a gross misdemeanor for trespassing.

Violators are also a nuisance to longtime shed hunters such as Tim Campbell, who began seriously searching more than 30 years ago and said he’s collected around 2,100 racks. One of his biggest pet peeves is finding off-road vehicle tracks away from trails as he tries to find secluded areas for antlers of white-tailed deer starting in January, mule deer in March, and elk in April.

But the 59-year-old nurse supervisor at Virginia Mason Memorial hospital who lives in Electric City worries that might not be possible much longer. He sees more restrictive policies to protect wildlife in other states and suspects Washington could make a similar choice to shut down public lands early each year.

“It’s like all things,” Campbell said. “More people are doing it and there’s always a few that ruin it for everybody, but I try not to get too hung up on it.”

Colorado recently banned shed hunting from Jan. 1 to April 30 on public lands west of Interstate 25, and Wyoming approved a restriction for the same time period for all land west of the Continental Divide, excluding the Great Divide Basin. Utah lifted its controversial seasonal statewide ban last fall to require shed hunters to take a free ethics course before going out to gather antlers, and West Virginia banned shed hunting entirely in 2002 with a law preventing people from keeping any part of an animal outside of hunting seasons.

Washington law allows anyone to pick up shed antlers at any time, so long as they’re not violating seasonal closures at Oak Creek Wildlife Area or elsewhere. The region’s operations manager, Ross Huffman, said he’s not aware of any serious discussions to make changes and noted they would need to come from the Legislature or the wildlife commission appointed by the governor.

Huffman understands shed hunting’s value as not only a reason for hunters such as Campbell to go outside and begin scouting, but also a way to encourage outdoor recreation. Campbell said it’s great exercise, since he hikes an estimated 10 miles on an average day.

“Get away from the roads,” said Campbell, who has come up empty often but also picked up 19 antlers on his best day. “Always go where the snow melts first and the grass always starts to grow first.”

Rachel Voss, the Washington state chair of the Mule Deer Foundation, said adding to a collection brings a certain satisfaction. It’s why so many people she knows turned shed hunting into a tradition on May 1, when Oak Creek’s winter closure finally ends.

A lack of snow at the lower elevations this past winter kept the elk from coming down to the feed site, meaning a much longer drive up the mountain to find antlers. But a smaller turnout of collectors earlier this month still featured 75 vehicles, 14 hikers and two horses at the main parking lot, plus another 27 vehicles at nearby locations.

In years when hundreds of elk come down to feed, Mackey and his staff often pick up antlers to eliminate the temptation for visitors to climb the fence and disturb the animals. Weaver said that doesn’t stop everyone, so he’ll even occasionally send in patrols despite the risk of potential harm to wildlife.

“That’s something we’re very aware of,” Weaver said. “Sometimes we have to go in there (on patrols). We try to be cognizant of elk herds and where they’re at.”

Camera surveillance and volunteer citizen groups such as Eyes in the Woods also exist in some areas to catch trespassers.