CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — National park rangers and other federal law enforcement officers kept watch without intervening as dozens of antler hunters in western Wyoming gathered for what turned out, for some, to be an ill-fated rush to cross an ice-cold raging mountain river at night.
Hands-off as it was, it was standard policy on Western federal lands whenever foolishness committed by the public falls short of, say, harassing a 3,000-pound bison.
"We don't try to restrict people's access or activities unless it's obviously dangerous," Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said. "And I don't think there was any assumption by the rangers that some of these people were trying to do something that was inordinately dangerous."
Amid Friday's midnight frenzy to access antlers recently shed by elk in Bridger-Teton National Forest, a horse being ridden across the Gros Ventre River from Grand Teton drowned, and a small aluminum boat carrying five people capsized.
Two of the boaters had to be rescued by rangers and law enforcement. The other three made it across the 75-foot-wide river and built a fire to warm up, only to capsize again on the way back.
No one was seriously hurt. Federal officials say they probably will review what happened as they often do following multi-agency rescue efforts.
For many antler hunters, simply getting out in nature is the best part. For others, it's money. Antlers shed by elk every spring can fetch more than $15 a pound and as much as $1,000 for a large, matching, decorative set.
The river crossing has grown into something of an annual tradition since 2010. State officials were concerned about antler hunters harassing elk weakened by winter, so they began banning the collecting of antlers in western Wyoming from Jan. 1 through April 30.
Antler-gathering is prohibited year-round on Grand Teton and the nearby National Elk Refuge. But Bridger-Teton National Forest opens to antler hunters at midnight May 1.
Many line up in their cars to enter the forest starting at 8 a.m. May 1. That's when officials raise a gate on a refuge road that otherwise is closed this time of year.
But it's not soon enough for some collectors. Crossing the river at midnight is the surest, if not safest, way to reach the forest and start scooping up antlers before anybody else.
"It just becomes competitive with people wanting to be the first people out," said Lori Iverson, spokeswoman for the National Elk Refuge.
This year, the Gros Ventre River is swollen with early mountain snowmelt and running at 1,000 cubic feet per second — twice as much water as normal for early May.
Antler hunters intent on crossing the rushing river began gathering on the shore Thursday evening.
"We certainly do let them know it's 'Travel at your own risk,' and it's not something we endorse or promote," elk refuge spokeswoman Lori Iverson said.
Some of the antler hunters used cheap, swimming-pool-grade inflatable rafts to cross the river, Bridger-Teton spokeswoman Mary Cernicek said.
"I know that we've been having more and more pressures on that area and people thinking that crossing a swollen river in the dark is a good idea," Cernicek said. "It was just a recipe for an accident."
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