Recovery efforts save three elk after several fall through ice at golf course outside Carbondale

Ray K. Erku
Glenwood Springs Post-Independent
Rescuers cover an elk with a concrete blanket used from a nearby construction site on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. The elk fell through the ice at Aspen Glen Club near Carbondale.
Jenny Cutright/Courtesy photo

Rescue teams saved three elk that fell through a frozen lake at a Roaring Fork Valley golf course early Tuesday morning, March 21. An additional handful, however, did not survive.

According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, a small herd of elk calves and cows attempted to cross a lake at the Aspen Glen Club near Carbondale, likely sometime between 5-6 a.m.

District Wildlife Manager John Groves told the Post Independent on Wednesday morning that he answered the call around 7:30 a.m Tuesday.

In addition to aid from Parks and Wildlife, members of the Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District, U.S. Forest Service, Roaring Fork Valley Coop and Aspen Glen retrieved the three surviving elk by placing ladders for footing over an estimated 3 inches of ice, tying the elk with a rope and pulling them out with a tractor.

“I ended up stepping out on the ice and lassoing the three so we could pull them up out of the ice and up onto the bank,” Groves said. “I’m glad I got three out but disappointed that five others went through. We’re trying to save them, and watching them go under and not come back up — that’s not a good feeling.”

By the time the three surviving elk were taken toward shore, Groves described them as hypothermic and exhausted. They were immediately wrapped up in concrete blankets from a nearby construction site to regain warmth. They would later recover and were released, Groves said.

“I just gave them time to recuperate and get up and move off on their own,” he said.

Rescuers place concrete blankets over an elk that was saved after falling through a frozen lake at the Aspen Glen Club on Tuesday, March 21, 2023.
Courtesy photo

Groves said the remaining elk likely died of hypothermia. Their bodies shut down and they ended up drowning.

“It was a group effort to be able to save what we could,” he said.  

Bill Gavette, Carbondale’s deputy fire chief, said the save took about 45 minutes, from the time the elk were roped ashore, to when they scampered off back into the woods.

“We had seven elk standing in one spot, you know, and with the concentrated weight of their legs, I think they just punched through and then they all went down,” he said.

Carbondale Fire Public Information Officer Jenny Cutright said the wild animals were so weak, cold and scared, people were able to “pet the elk.”

“We also would want to emphasize to people: don’t just try to crawl out on the ice to rescue animals,” she said. “Especially in the spring because the ice is weak. Call the (department of wildlife).”

Crews help rescue elk out of a frozen lake at the Aspen Glen Club on Tuesday, March 21, 2023.
Courtesy photo

Aspen Glen General Manager Mike Fleig told the Post Independent that the depth of the lake itself, the course’s centerpiece, is more than 6 feet deep.

Fleig also said the lake has no winterization process in place. The lakes and ponds on the course, which do carry trout, can be drained to a certain level but are not designed to be emptied.

“We have water rights to ditch water, as do the folks above and below these ditches. It goes through this pond system and a certain amount of it continues downstream based on the water rights,” he said. “So they’re left full. Most of the lakes here have trout in them. It is a food source for wildlife.”

Fleig said Aspen Glen has sought a salvage permit available through Parks and Wildlife. With this, the remaining elk that did not survive can be processed and given to parties in need.

Fleig said the immediate response to the elk falling through the ice and saving the three “has been very positive.”

Elk saved from a frozen lake at the Aspen Glen Club are covered in blankets on Tuesday, March 21, 2023.
Courtesy photo

“I mean, they knew what to do, they knew how to deal with it, and I would really emphasize that this is not something that any person should just go out and try to do on their own,” he said. “These are big animals, they weigh 500 to 1,200 pounds, and you need to have folks that know how to perform an ice rescue with a large animal to do that.”

The elk were likely a subgroup of the enormous Avalanche Creek Herd, which at one point was estimated to have up to 5,000 head roaming the Roaring Fork Valley. Groves estimated on Wednesday that the herd is roughly 3,800 elk.

Wildlife officials said they would like to see ponds and lakes at all local golf courses pumped down in fall to help lessen the likelihood of animals falling through the ice and dying in the water.

“It’s fairly common,” Groves said of animals falling through ice locally. “We probably hear about it a few times every year in different spots. We’ve had them on the river crash through the ice and different golf course ponds go through the ice.

“Anytime you have a pond that’s frozen, elk sometimes think they can cross it and there’s always a possibility of them dropping through.”

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