Billy and Todd Conn were fishing Tuesday at Antimony Lake in Garfield County when Billy saw what he thought were shed antlers and animal bones near some trees and decided to investigate.
Turns out, it wasn’t just the antlers. It was a fully grown bull elk stuck chest-deep in the mud.
Division of Wildlife Resources biologist Jim Lamb said the two men had a choice: Do nothing or do something.
And they chose something.
“All the credit goes to Billy and Todd, because they didn’t have to call anybody. They didn’t have to become involved,” Lamb said. “They didn’t have to go back and help."
But they did. And with determination, ingenuity, manpower and some construction tools, they unstuck the elk the next day.
There isn’t an instruction manual for when biologists find animals stuck like this, especially one as big as a bull elk, which weigh about 700 pounds when fully grown. So Lamb said the men discussed several possibilities for the planned rescue Tuesday night.
Maybe they’d try to dig the animal out. Or use a winch and a tripod to leverage him up and out of the hole. Or just drag him free.
Whatever they chose, Lamb said it wouldn’t be easy, because "a bull elk does not want to be friends with you.” Even when you’re trying to save its life.
Lamb said the men didn’t settle on one plan that night, but instead decided to meet up the next day with an assortment of tools — ropes, cables, shovels, chain saws, etc. — and see what might work best.
Lamb, Todd and Billy Conn and Durfey met at the Antimony Mercantile on Wednesday and traveled up Antimony Creek to Antimony Lake, where the elk was trapped in a bog hole in a wet, spongey meadow.
The elk likely got itself stuck wallowing in the mud, an instinct bull elks have during the mating season. Apparently, Lamb said, it makes the male elk more attractive to females.
In his opinion, “They just make themselves a royal stinking mess.”
This bull elk, Lamb theorized, probably just picked an oversaturated place to wallow in and broke through the sod layer into the mucky mess beneath.
As the men assessed the situation in the meadow, Todd Conn said the elk was getting tired. At one point seemed to give up and let his nose droop into the mud.
“He was so exhausted that he’d had enough, and we were like, ‘No, no, no. Give us a couple more minutes,’” Todd Conn said.
The men finally decided to cut down two cedar trees to make posts, which they tied together to make an A-frame.
They connected ropes to the elk and their ATV. Then ran a winch over the top of the A-frame, so that the cable, when pulled, erected the A-frame, and that pulled the elk’s chest above the wall of mud that trapped him.
Then they used an ATV to pull the elk the rest of the way out.
Once the elk — scared, stumbling and tired — was free, the men tried to remove their contraption from its antlers.
Video shows the men tugging at ropes as the elk flails around. And after a few moments, the mud-coated animal gets free. He falls over again, freezing with one leg and its neck pointed toward the sky. Then he runs off.
And gets stuck again, Todd Conn said. This time in the bog, where his hooves dove deep into the mud. The men regrouped, got a rope around his antlers and pulled him out.
When they let him free for the second time, they made sure he ran away from the bog.
In all, the rescue itself probably took about an hour. Lamb said the men were home before 5 p.m.
As for the elk, Lamb said if he was thankful for the rescue, he didn’t show it.
“He didn’t like us at all,” he said laughing. “He let us know several times he was ready to kick our butts.”
Correction: 4:55 p.m., Aug. 30, 2019 • An earlier version of this story misidentified the fisherman who spotted the stuck elk. It was Billy Conn.