From a distance, Devan Thornock’s gaze was drawn toward what looked like birds congregated on the ice across the highway from the Alpine Feedground.
Not quite. The movement proved to be the heads of swimming elk, a herd of about 15 cows and calves that early Friday morning broke through a seldom-submerged bay of Palisades Reservoir.
Thornock put his commute to lay tile in Teton Village on hold, and, for over an hour, he worked to save distressed wapiti that were bound to drown without intervention.
His boss did reconnaissance, making sure the ice was thick enough to safely pull off a rescue operation. Confident it was safe, they took action.
“At first, me and my boss only had a hammer,” Thornock said, “and that’s all we had to try to break the ice apart.”
Passersby, curious about the commotion, stopped to check out the scene, and soon they had reinforcements armed with chainsaws and augers, all trying to cut a channel to shore that could lead the elk to dry land.
About 25 yards of 2-foot-thick ice put the kibosh on that effort, so they moved to plan B: roping and grappling the sopping wet elk to pull them out of the water one at a time.
“That was the only way to get them out,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist Gary Fralick said. “Those cows weigh 600, 700 pounds, and it took three or four people to pull them over the ice.
“But we got them all out,” he said, “and were able to release them.”
It wasn’t easy. Thornock got soaked from top to bottom and sustained one kick from a confused cow.
Fralick, who took a hoof to the arm, said that two elk were seen going under and are believed to have drowned. Two calves were so weakened by the ordeal that they couldn’t stand up and had to be shuttled across the highway to the elk feedground. The rest found their feet and scampered away.
The Game and Fish biologist chalked up the successful rescue to the large contingent of people who stopped to help out. Lincoln County sheriff’s deputies, the Wyoming Department of Transportation and about 25 residents passing by assisted, he said.
It was a display that made Thornock grateful for the benevolence of his fellow Star Valley residents.
“Everyone was just stopping,” he said. “It amazed me how many people stopped and tried to help.”
Palisades Reservoir has proven to be a deadly body of water for elk in the past. In spring 2015, a herd of 35 wapiti broke through the ice unseen, and all perished.
Usually such accidents happen when elk hit thin ice farther east, nearer to where the Grays and Snake rivers meet and flow into the reservoir.
“There have been numerous other incidents where varying numbers have gone through the ice and didn’t make it,” Fralick said.
The area where the elk broke through Friday is usually dry ground in the winter, but this December it has been underwater because of construction work on the Palisades Reservoir spillway.
The lucky elk that were plucked out of the water were likely animals from the Afton Herd on the home stretch of their migration to the Alpine Feedground, Fralick said.