GREAT FALLS -- Hundreds of antlers, horns and hides piled high outside Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Great Falls office drew bids ranging from a few dollars to the thousands on Saturday.
It was the state’s semiannual auction of confiscated wildlife, with items including bighorn sheep horns, elk racks and shed antlers and even a few frozen mountain lion, bobcat and otter carcasses. The auction drew a wide variety of bidders, whether wildlife artists looking for horns to carve, crafters needing antlers or taxidermists buying trophies for the wall.
While some of the items came from roadkill, the majority were seized in poaching investigations, housed in all seven FWP regions until Saturday’s auction.
“Logistically, it’s a lot of work for us to round up all the evidence, bring it to Great Falls and break it down by species,” said FWP Warden Captain Dave Holland.
Wardens organize the items by species into “lots,” which can be a single elk rack on the skull or several individual antlers bundled together. More than 400 lots were available for bid Saturday.
“It’s run through a private auction and all the proceeds go into the state general fund, and then to the state food bank network to help fund the food banks around Montana,” said FWP spokesman Bruce Auchly.
First up for auction was a massive bighorn sheep head destined for a taxidermist. Fred Burow with Burow’s Auction took center stage, sporting a cowboy hat and bolo tie, and began rattling off numbers in a classic western spectacle. Within a few seconds the bid climbed over $1,000, stalled briefly, and then took off again. When the bidding stopped, the price tag was $2,700.
Another sheep head followed, this one only fetching $650.
“The value of wildlife varies so much and is so much about the individual and the aesthetics they like,” Holland said. “What I like may not be what you like so it’s so hard to put one value on something.”
Many of the individual antlers will become knife handles or door knobs, some will be ground into powders for medicinal purposes and others formed into lamps or chandeliers.
Bidders purchased more than 25 sheep heads on Saturday. Due to their high value and the related incentive to kill and then sell them illegally, it is unlawful in Montana to even pick up a naturally killed head or horns.
FWP acquired several sheep via those who did not realize the law and picked up a deadhead. Upon discovering their mistakes, the heads were turned in.
A few of the bighorns also came from the Tendoy Mountains. In that range, FWP is removing all the sheep due to persistent disease with the goal of eventually reintroducing a herd.
While most bidders attended Saturday’s auction to purchase items for eventual resale, Holland acknowledged that the crowd included a few “familiar faces to wardens,” meaning those who had illegally killed the animals in the first place. Nothing prevents a poacher from buying the animal he or she unlawfully killed, he said.
The takeaway of seeing the evidence from numerous wildlife crime investigations all collected in one place was not lost on Holland.
“What the underlying take home for me is that these are from illegally taken wildlife -- over limit, shot at night. Every head here is an opportunity taken away from a hunter to harvest or for a nonhunter to enjoy.”