Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers and ice rescue personnel clad in dry suits worked today to try to recover a dozen elk that died Tuesday after falling through the ice of a private lake in Otsego County.
“This is a very tragic and unfortunate event,” said DNR Director Dan Eichinger. “Elk are an important species in Michigan’s successful conservation history. We are indebted to the conservation officers and hunting guides who tried to help in responding to this incident Tuesday afternoon.”
In all, the carcasses of three spike bull elk, five cows and three calves were recovered from the lake today. The remaining elk carcass was not found. The ice thickness measured 2 inches where the elk fell through, with the water about 50 feet deep.
The incident began at about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday when conservation officers were called by an elk-hunting guide who reported that 10-12 elk had fallen through the ice on Crapo Lake, which is a 92-acre lake located about 20 miles northeast of Grayling.
The guide said he, another guide and their hunting party had come to the lake’s private hunting property and sighted the elk about 100 yards from a main road. The hunters had been granted permission to be on the property.
“When the hunters arrived, they saw the elk headed down a slope and onto the ice, traveling approximately 75 to 100 yards out onto the ice,” said Sgt. Mark Depew of the DNR Law Enforcement Division. “The animals grouped up and broke through the ice.”
Conservation officers arrived about 30 minutes after receiving the call. They found the two hunting guides who reported the incident in a rowboat, attempting to cut an escape path through the ice for the elk with a chainsaw.
“The ice was approximately 5 to 6 inches thick, and the two were making almost no progress,” Depew said. “For the safety of the guides, conservation officers ordered them off the ice to prevent another tragedy. Given the weight of the animals and the relatively thin ice, there were no safe options available for saving or recovering the elk alive.”
DNR Wildlife Division Chief Jared Duquette said there are anecdotal reports from other states of similar incidents occurring with elk. Elk are animals of open woodlands and varied elevations, typically weighing between 350 and 900 pounds.
Lt. Jim Gorno of the DNR Law Enforcement Division said there are instances reported each winter of deer, moose or dogs falling through the ice of lakes and streams.
In some cases, well-intentioned people have endangered their own lives in attempts to try to save these animals, sometimes with fatal results.
“We remind people that no ice is safe ice,” Gorno said. “Putting yourself in danger of drowning is not an acceptable risk.”
DNR Law Enforcement Division Chief Gary Hagler said conservation officers are investigating Tuesday’s incident.
“We’re looking into it to make sure no game hunting violations of any kind occurred,” Hagler said.
This morning, DNR and Otsego County EMS ice rescue team personnel recovered the elk carcasses from the lake.
“Boats, cables, winches, ropes and ladders were utilized in the recovery effort,” Gorno said. “All the elk will be processed by local butchers and processors and the meat donated to local charities and food banks for distribution.”
Standard Provision of Alpena will be doing the processing, which will be paid for by Safari Club International and Hunters Harvest.
Duquette said the loss of the elk will not significantly reduce the elk herd in the northern Lower Peninsula. He does not expect the loss to affect elk-hunting quotas for next year.
Elk were reintroduced to Michigan in 1918 after native elk disappeared due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Today’s healthy and abundant elk population is found in the northeastern Lower Peninsula. Approximately 1,000 elk are estimated to be in Michigan’s elk range, which includes the Pigeon River Country State Forest.
The elk herd today is closely monitored, and carefully regulated elk hunts occur each fall with two hunt periods: Hunt Period 1 in August/September and Hunt Period 2 in December. During the hunt this fall, 73 elk were taken by hunters.