"We are not sure how long they were there. At least three of them had been there for a long time," said Bill Bates, big game manager for the DWR's southeastern region out of Price. "We could see how they worked their way down from the top through a series of ledges, but there was no way back up."
Bates said it was apparent the surviving animals on the 25- to 30-foot-wide cliff were in trouble. Would-be rescuers returned Thursday with explosives, hoping to "blast a path for them to get back up," Bates said. "But there was just way too much to deal with."
They considered using a helicopter to lift the elk off of the cliff, but decided it was too dangerous for the pilot to attempt flying so close to the cliff.
After consulting with acting DWR director Miles Moretti, the five living bulls were shot to avoid a slow death from starvation. Bates said the condition of the animals was too poor to salvage the meat.
Bates said the plateau above the cliffs where the bulls were found is a traditional wintering range for elk, and that other animals were spotted during the rescue operation. He said the situation was unusual and that "elk going out on precarious ledges like that is pretty strange."
Jim Karpowitz, Utah's big game coordinator for the DWR, said animals are sometimes trapped by snow and that carcasses are occasionally found at the bottom of cliffs, but that he knew personally of only one other case where big game animals died after being trapped on a cliff ledge.
"We saw it once in Westwater Canyon with bighorn sheep about 10 years ago. They got stuck going after water and could not get back up," he said.
Karpowitz said the seven or eight sheep were dead for some time before they were discovered. DWR officials worked on the cliff to ensure bighorns would not get trapped again.
Karpowitz said the loss of the bulls would probably have no significant biological impact on the elk herd in the area.