Harvesting Animal Bones From The Woods
what to know for foragers and collectors
Walking through the woods, there is nothing that delights me more than finding a hawk feather fallen in my path, a stray skull fragment a coyote had drug off, or a piece of deer bone.
I've been walking the banks of rivers looking for turtle shells and the like, for about as long as I can remember -
But did you know: unless you have a hunting, fur-bearing, educational, or a 24-hour temporary roadkill permit (as allowed by some states), it's illegal to pick up, possess, barter and sell any piece from a wild animal?
Even if it's on your land. Violating that law could end you up with a $5,000 or more fine, or with a federal record if the animal is an endangered one.
A lot of people like to collect bones and feathers for a crafts, spiritual reasons, admiring beauty, and so on, so I wanted to share a bit about the law - just for all of our collective knowledge.
First, let's talk about why it's illegal first . . . and then let's what to do if you already have in your possession or want some animal bones for your collection.
Why It's Illegal to Pick Up and Collect Bones
(Without a Permit, that is)
without just looking at the bad, here are a few reasons why this law does all us some good:
For actual defense, against real poachers
This is the legal primary reason that animal parts trading and owning without a permit is illegal. The law helps deflect and weed out people who are actually illegally killing, selling, or trading animals in mass numbers, only to then claim it was 'found,' when questioned by authorities.
According to Sergeant Todd Hoodenpyl, a fish and wildlife trooper for the Oregon State Police, when armed with a search warrant to investigate an allegation of actual poaching, state wildlife cops often check out what’s inside people’s freezers.
He says, “If we allowed people to keep road-struck game when we go into a poacher’s home, they could claim that the meat was road struck.” - Eugene Weekly, The Art of Roadkill
The nature motto "Leave No Trace" has a purpose
Leave only footprints, take only photographs.
Boy scouts, girl scouts, environmental educators, wildlife and nature guides, we know this one too well.
This is all due to preventing overharvesting, extinction and tragedy of the commons. The last one a common ecological concept regarding public lands, and what can happen when everyone has access and some people take too much.
With populations rising, this was the way it was ensured and reiterated that people didn't just come out from the cities and totally raid, mine, and murder the place. Which has happened. That has definitely happened. So the collection without permit law hopefully protects and prevents this from happening again, ensuring populations of all wild creatures, plants included, stay present, and keep nature, natural, for generations and generations to come.
Which leads us to . . .
It's to preserve limited natural resources
Resources are limited in the wild, and the law is to prevent over-harvesting of those resources. It's a delicate balance we're working with in nature and what I'm talking about is a tragedy of the commons, a resource principle discussed in environmental economics and currency. People are afraid of the tragedy of commons happening again. That's the first thing. Extinction is a concern.
The second thing, the more ecological philosophy, is the scarcity of resources, something people want to be mindful of, especially when dealing with essential resources and nutrients that are needed growth and rare in the wild. Let's talk about the resource calcium for a moment.
When mammal bones are left where they lay, the nutrients and rare calcium supplies oft not found in the wild are left to the creatures of the forest who may need those nutrients most. Coyotes, coons, foxes, minxes, vultures, everyone and anyone, all may come to chew on those bones, specifically for their mineral-rich deposits.
Special Roadkill and Hunter Trade harvest laws do exist in a variety of states in order to support rural and low-income human populations. For example, like a game meat exchange program.
What to do if you want or need animal bones, but you don’t have a permit -
Obtain a permit. Hunting, fur-bearing, educational, temporary road-kill. These are just a few of the options available to anyone who can present the right materials and have the credentials for each.
Befriend a hunter. In most states, someone with a hunting license (in most states, check the laws) can often just gift to you any part of an animal they've legally harvested themselves and have the paperwork for.
Research alternative options. Lady Althaea, along with my local Taxidermist, both suggest visiting a local butcher for spare bones, and in some states, road kill-capture is legal if you call it in as soon as you find it.
After that, there are some legal exceptions for the having and holding onto of bones or parts, that vary from state to state. For example, in Pennsylvania, gifts can be made, and gifts of properly taken animals are allowed across state lines also. Become aware of the exceptions in your state or provenance, if there are any and definitely make sure you don't fit into one of the exceptions first before you panic.
You already have animal bones -
First and foremost, gifts and vintage pieces are fine. As long as the mammal, bird, or creature in question isn't currently in endangered status, you're fine.
Second, relax. It's unlikely game commission is coming after that singular rib bone you recovered whilst out a vision quest, or the mink skull you found by your fence post. That's not who the having of unpermitted animal parts law is really after. I'm not supporting you pick anything up, I mean collecting rare plants keeps rare plants wild and in the wild, but that's not who this law is meant for. The law is more about the preventing illegal poaching and killing, preventing the promotion of that, making sure resources remain present for generations to come, and decreasing the monetary value of such collected items, to prevent further incentive to unsustainably kill.
So as long as you aren't doing any of that . . .
The wildlife commission are a bunch of friendly folks who have the same goal in mind as we all have: to honor and protect the land as best as we all can. And if you feel super worried, just put it back.
For more on the game laws in your state, the US State Law List by Green Wolf is a great place to begin, as the law does vary by species, though it will most likely follow what I listed above, with exception. For information on the permitting in the state of Pennsylvania, please contact the PA Game Commission or the Game Commission in your area, and someone on staff will happily share with you the proper laws in your area.
Amanda Linette Meder
Other Articles You May Enjoy:
Sanitizing Feathers for Crafts: What to do and why (Dara Trahan, external link)