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Elk Rescued After Fall Through Ice

December 21, 2007.

From the Colorado Division of Wildlife:

In one of the most unusual emergency operations in Colorado this year, three cow elk that fell through the ice of a private pond south of Pagosa Springs were rescued by Division of Wildlife officers, a local volunteer fire fighter and ten other law enforcement workers. The rescue occurred on December 15.

Another elk, a young spike bull, died in the pond during the effort.

It is not uncommon for big game animals to break through ice during winter while searching for water. But it's not common for the animals to be rescued.

James Romero, a DOW officer, received a call from the Colorado State Patrol about 8:30 a.m. and was told about the animals struggling in the pond. The call also went out to Archuleta County emergency operations. Staff from the sheriff's office, the Pagosa Fire Protection District, the Pagosa Springs Police Department and Upper San Juan Search and Rescue also went to the scene and all arrived within a few minutes of each other.

Photo: Elizabeth Reid, for the Colorado Division of Wildlife

The elk, apparently, had seen open water in what was the middle of the pond. When they moved to the edge the ice broke under their weight. Romero estimated that the animals weighed from 300 to 500 pounds each.

"I think they'd probably fell in earlier in the morning," Romero said. "They were panicked and struggling, but appeared they had enough energy to last awhile."

One of the people who came to the scene was Thad McKain, a volunteer with the Pagosa Fire District who is certified to perform ice rescues. He had been called by the search and rescue workers. They carry two suits designed for ice rescues in their truck.

McKain said he'd been involved with three rescues of dogs on ice, but had never been called on to save wildlife.

"We put the suits on and I gave James a crash course about what to do," McKain said.

Without the suits, rescue of the animals might not have been possible.

Secured by ropes, the two men moved to the edge of the water with an ax and broke some ice away to make a narrow slot into which they hoped to guide the elk. On the bank the 10 others stood to help.

"Then we just started making things up as we went," said Mike Reid, another local DOW wildlife officer who helped with the rescue.

Romero, who had never attempted to rescue a big game animal before, wasn't sure what to expect as he moved toward the elk. When he got to the edge of the ice, one of the cow elk swam to him.

"I was surprised. I didn't anticipate that, she came right up to me and seemed to be very calm," Romero said.

He dropped a rope around the elk's neck and held it close to the edge. McKain got on his knees, reached his hands into the water and tied a rope around the animal's legs. Then the whole crew worked to pull her out of the water. She fell down in the snow and the rescuers threw a blanket over her.

"Thank goodness that she made it a lot easier than it could have been," Romero said.

The rescue, however, didn't go quite so smooth with the other animals.

Romero went back to the edge of the ice and a second cow swam up to him. She was pulled out in the same way. But when the rope was removed she dashed back into the water. Romero went back to the edge and swinging the rope cowboy style threw it around the elk's neck. The crew pulled her out again, held her down and tied her feet together.

By this time the spike bull had died and was floating. Romero and Reid speculated that the cow elk might have been going back to the water to protect the young animal. So they threw a rope around the dead animal's antlers and dragged it out of the water.

The last cow elk proved to be the most difficult: It resisted being pulled up and fought its way back into the water three times. By the last time the elk was exhausted and crew was able to hobble her.

"We were all pretty wiped out by that time," Reid said. "The surprise is that we got three of them out alive."

The crew made sure the elk were hobbled securely, dried them off as much as possible, and then lifted each of them into separate pick-up trucks. Reid and Romero decided to take the animals to an area about 20 miles south of Pagosa Springs and let them go on U.S. Forest Service land.

They arrived at the release site by about noon, unloaded the elk and removed the hobbles. The animal that had run back into the water three times stood her ground and acted to protect the others. It charged toward the rescuers and reared up, kicked at them and grazed the face of one of the men with a hoof. Then it turned, jumped a fence and ran toward the forest.

A second elk stood up a few minutes later and made a similar escape. But the third elk, exhausted from the ordeal, fell back down after trying to stand up several times.

The wildlife officers stayed with the animal for an hour then left to make their work rounds. About 4:30 p.m. they returned and found a sheriff's deputy there. He had not been part of the rescue, but went to the release site after receiving a report that an elk was injured near U.S. Highway 84. The elk was in obvious physical distress and he decided to end its misery.

"It was frustrating to see, but the deputy made the right call," Romero said.

Romero said that the other two elk appeared to recover and looked good when they ran off.

"I think they had a pretty good chance," Romero said.

For McKain, who also owns a construction company, the effort put an unusual wrinkle in his career. "It gave me a new addition to my rescue resume," he said.

Romero credited the team effort for the rescue.

"We couldn't have done it without the help from the other agencies," he said.

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