Know the rules before you post a skull-and-antlers picture on Instagram
To you thousands of COVID-19 newbies that have joined our ranks to hunt deer in the fall and shed antlers in the spring, here is something you'll find interesting. A deadhead is the commonly used term for a buck deer carcass that you might stumble across in the woods, with antlers still attached to the skull. Generally, such a buck has been dead for several months or even a year or two, and the carcass has been ravaged by time, weather, and predators. All that might remain are a grisly skull with antlers, a portion of the spine, and maybe some rib bones wrapped tautly with pieces of hide as black as used motor oil.
If the skull has been lying on the ground for more than a few months, you might see teeth marks on the antlers where squirrels and mice have gnawed them. Rodents are attracted to the minerals in antlers, and they also chew them to wear down their ever-growing teeth. The longer a deadhead rots on the ground, the more squirrels will carve the antlers down, often removing inches of beams and tines.
A deadhead might have died of any number of causes: hit by a car, ran off and died; shot and lost by a bowhunter the previous season; winterkill; or victim to a bluetongue disease.
You see and hear a lot about deadheads this time of year as antler hunters find the macabre souvenirs and post pictures of them, especially the big ones, on social media. Most of the deadheads people find have small to medium racks, but some skulls with 150-, 180-, and even 200-inch monster racks are picked up each spring.
Get Permission or a Salvage Permit
To all newbies and those of you who have been hunting sheds for years, here's something you need to know. No matter where you live and hunt, if you find a deadhead, no matter the size, chances are you need a salvage permit or at least permission from a state official before you can legally pick it up and take it home. In most states a deadhead is treated like a roadkill buck and subject to the same possession laws. These laws do not apply to loose shed antlers you pick up.
Go online to your department of natural resources website and search for roadkill possession or salvage tag. Rules vary widely by state and are often vague, so you might have to dig around the site for a while to find the information.
In some states, calling a game warden and telling them you found a skull with antlers and plan to take it home is all you need to do. Technically, a warden might want to come and check the skull and rack, but that is rarely the case. Make sure you keep a record of the call, and make note of a voicemail if you leave one.
States where I can confirm you need a salvage permit, which is usually free and available online, include Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. There are likely others.
In a few states, one being New Jersey, it is illegal to pick up and possess a deer skull with antlers at any time. If you're out shed hunting and find a deadhead, you're supposed to leave it. This makes no sense to me, but the authorities say the law is designed to cut down on poaching.
Possession laws might seem trivial, but make the call for permission or get a salvage tag, whichever your state requires. The last thing you need is to find a skull with huge antlers, post a picture of it on Facebook, and get a visit from a game warden asking if you have the proper documentation.
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