If you live in or near Jackson, Wyo., you know all about Elkfest.
Thousands of residents and visitors gather each spring in Jackson Town Square for the weekend-long community celebration and its premier event: the hugely popular Boy Scout Elk Antler Auction.
The half-century-old tradition benefits multiple parties: The nearby National Elk Refuge gets some valuable volunteer service and revenue, the Jackson District of the BSA’s Grand Teton Council gets a valuable fundraising opportunity and the citizens of Jackson get a family-friendly community event.
“It’s a community service project, but also an opportunity to be involved with something that’s really unique,” says Mindy Kim-Miller, Scoutmaster of Troop 268 in Jackson.
The story of Elkfest begins with the National Elk Refuge. And the story of the National Elk Refuge begins more than 100 years ago, when the once-thriving Jackson elk herd was in jeopardy.
As human development in the area increased, some of the migration routes of the local elk population were blocked. As a result, the elk were unable to reach their ideal winter home. The herd struggled to deal with the harsh winter climate and the lack of food. Their numbers were dramatically reduced.
Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the community of Jackson to realize something had to be done. The National Elk Refuge was established in 1912.
Its meadows, marshes and grasslands provided an ideal winter habitat for one of the largest elk herds on the planet. The refuge’s supplemental feeding program provided them with enough to survive the winter.
However, one problem arose.
Each spring, the male elk shed their antlers. Eventually, the value of these antlers began to increase. People used them in artwork, furniture and other novelty items. Antlers and their velvet were used as medicine in East Asia.
As the antlers became more valuable, poaching on the refuge became a concern. Also, shed antlers blend in with late-winter snow and can be difficult to see in dried grass, so they could damage refuge workers’ equipment during activities such as feeding and irrigating.
To alleviate these problems, refuge officials began collecting antlers from refuge grounds in the 1950s. But it was a really big job. We’re talking thousands and thousands of antlers. The workers needed help.
In 1957, someone had the genius idea to ask the local Scouts for help.
Of course, they said yes.
By 1966, the Scouts had proven themselves worthy enough to get an annual special-use permit to assist with the spring antler collection every year. The first auction was held in 1967.
The National Elk Refuge staff still does a lot of the work. The Scouts help them pick up antlers each spring, making a final sweep for antlers to sell at the annual auction.
It’s part service project, part adventure.
It’s also a unique opportunity: The Scouts get to explore a wilderness where most people aren’t allowed to go. For the protection of the elk and their habitat, most of these grounds are closed to the general public. Under supervision of refuge workers, the Scouts are often sent to search for antlers in areas difficult for refuge staff to cover earlier in the season with trucks and all-terrain vehicles.
“We walk 3 or 4 or 5 miles to pick up the antlers,” says Kevin Anderson, Scoutmaster of Troop 67 in Jackson. “When a boy finds an antler, it’s a big to-do.
“It’s one of our more popular events. You don’t get to go out on the refuge any other time. It’s a privilege that we’re allowed to do what nobody else is.”
Refuge staffers transport the collected antlers in government vehicles to a secured location. The special-use permit says the Scouts cannot keep any of the collected antlers. They all go up for sale at the auction.
“You go out there, you stay alert and you look for the antlers,” says Aidan Kim-Miller, an 11-year-old from Troop 268. “It’s very fun. It also helps knowing that you are one of very few people who gets the opportunity to go onto the elk refuge.”
The antler-collecting portion of the Scouts’ service is done in one day. But their jobs are hardly finished. Just a few weeks later, it’s auction time.
Scout leaders spend hours preparing the antlers for sale, including sorting, bundling, weighing and tagging. They separate out antlers that are broken or otherwise atypical. Antlers that are six, seven and eight points in size are more valuable. When possible, the volunteers try to match pairs together, because a matching set generally brings a higher sale price. They are trained to look for antlers with the same curvature, color and texture. Those bundles appeal to buyers who build chandeliers, lamps and other items for which it’s important to have antlers of similar shape and size. Antlers are sold by the pound, so the bundles are weighed and tagged to make auction day easier for both the bidders and auctioneers.
Around 6 a.m. on auction day, volunteers begin laying out the bundled antlers. Around 7 a.m., prospective bidders are able to examine the merchandise. When the auction begins, the Scouts hold up antlers on stage for bidders to see.
“We rotate through boys who carry the antlers on stage,” says Lachlan Brown, 15, from Troop 67. “And as they’re sold, we carry them out to the buyers.”
As the auction continues, other Scouts man stations that the public can visit. One group of Scouts runs a mini climbing wall for kids. Another builds a rope bridge.
In all, more than 200 Scouts and leaders contribute around 2,000 hours of service each year to prepare for and administer the sale of the antlers. Seventy-five percent of the proceeds go to the National Elk Refuge; the rest goes to the Grand Teton Council’s Jackson District.
“I’ve done it since I was a Tiger,” says Drew Valdez, a 13-year-old from Troop 268. “When I was younger, I’d follow the lead of the older Scouts who were there. Now I’m more in the lead, so I help out the younger kids.”
The National Elk Refuge
The National Elk Refuge was established by various acts of Congress, executive orders and other documents to provide, preserve, restore and manage lands for wintering elk, birds and other large game animals.
It’s illegal to collect items from the National Elk Refuge, such as antlers, fossils and other artifacts. The only thing you can take from the refuge are antlers purchased at the Scout auction.
There is one primary road and one multiuse pathway in the refuge. Otherwise, the public is not allowed on refuge lands. However, travelers can enjoy expansive views of the wildlife refuge as they drive north out of Jackson.
For more, visit go.scoutingmagazine.org/elk