12 elk die after falling through ice in Otsego County

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

The carcasses of a dozen elk that died Tuesday after falling through the ice in a private lake in Otsego County were recovered Wednesday morning, officials said. 

Conservation officers from the Department of Natural Resources and Otsego County EMS ice rescue team personnel in dry suits retrieved the elk from the lake, the DNR said in a press release Wednesday.

Officers were called at about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday by an elk-hunting guide who reported that nearly a dozen elk had fallen into Crapo Lake, a 92-acre body located about 20 miles northeast of Grayling. 

Elk-viewing is a free, family-friendly activity in Gaylord in northern Michigan.

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, the release said.

“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.”

The ice thickness measured 2 inches where the animals fell through into 50-foot deep water. 

“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. 

There are anecdotal reports from other states of similar incidents occurring with elk, said DNR Wildlife division chief Jared Duquette. Elk are animals of open woodlands and varied elevations, typically weighing between 350 and 900 pounds, according to the department.

The loss of the elk will not significantly reduce the elk herd in the northern Lower Peninsula, said Duquette. 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 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.

Instances are reported each winter of deer, moose or dogs falling through the ice of lakes and streams, according to Lt. Jim Gorno of the DNR Law Enforcement Division. 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.”

Conservation officers are investigating Tuesday's incident, according to Gary Hagler, chief of the law enforcement division. 

“We’re looking into it to make sure no game hunting violations of any kind occurred,” Hagler said.

“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, announced the DNR, which will be paid for by Safari Club International and Hunters Harvest.

The elk herd today is closely monitored, and regulated 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.