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Don't know if the ice is safe? Just follow the antelope !

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From Billings Gazette (Montana) Jan 13, 2004.

Antelope die as Fort Peck ice breaks: Wardens clear 85 bodies from water

By MARK HENCKEL
Gazette Outdoor Editor

Eighty-five antelope met a watery end in Fort Peck Reservoir last Friday when the ice broke as they attempted to cross the lake a few miles southwest of Fort Peck Dam.

The incident occurred at about 2 p.m. Friday in Duck Creek Bay, located just west of the cabin area near Fort Peck Dam and about 125 yards out from the Duck Creek Boat Ramp.

"We got a call from a woman who witnessed it," said Mike Herman, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks warden captain. "She was out walking and watched them start cutting across the lake."

Betty Hirsch made the call and then contacted Greg Speer, who lives nearby and is Fort Peck chief of police and captain of the Valley County Search and Rescue.

"I got the call and looked out my bedroom window and saw a bunch more go in," Speer said. "There must have been about 250 in the herd all together. Most didn't break through but a lot of them did."

As game wardens from FWP's Glasgow office and Search and Rescue volunteers sped to the scene, Speer said all he could do was watch hopelessly.

"It was disheartening to watch," he said. "When I first saw them, there was a bunch of heads up and then the heads started dropping, then more heads dropping, then more. It really makes you feel bad. It makes you sick to your stomach."

By the time Search and Rescue volunteers Alvie Hallock, Zeb Speer and Sean Buck were able to launch the group's air boat and get to the spot, all but two of the antelope that broke through had died.

"We did pull one out," Herman said. "But it was hurting bad. Another antelope got out on its own and that one wasn't doing very well, either. Those were the only two that got out of the water."

The scene was a gruesome one.

As the antelope thrashed their hooves and fought the sharp edge of the ice, they were cut badly. Blood and hair were everywhere. Some had visible wounds and others had their insides trailing out.

"None of them sank," Herman said. "Their hollow hair must have made them all float. They were laying there in the water and on top of the broken ice. A lot were all torn up. A lot were waterlogged. There wasn't even any meat we could salvage. I couldn't even fathom giving that meat to someone."

So the game wardens and Search and Rescue personnel began the grisly task of cleaning up the mess, ferrying carcasses back to pickup trucks on the shore and then transporting them to the landfill.

"We were still picking up dead animals after dark," Herman said. "We made a physical count and transported 85 dead antelope."

No one knows why the antelope headed out onto the ice in the first place. The animals didn't appear to have been chased. But there is some history of Canadian and Hi-Line antelope migrating southward in tough winters and crossing the big lake in search of friendlier habitat.

With about a foot and a half of snow on the level in the Glasgow area and even more further north, not counting the drifts, it certainly qualifies as a tough winter.

"In years like this, I think antelope move by the thousands," said Harold Wentland, regional wildlife manager for FWP in Glasgow. "There isn't much for sagebrush on the Hi-Line and north to sustain them.

"I think traditionally they used to winter on the Milk River bottoms and in south Valley County," he added. "Some of them will go across the reservoir and the next summer, you'll see them standing on the south shore looking north.

"That doesn't happen so much with deer," Wentland said. "They're better equipped to handle these winter conditions. But those antelope out on the lake, that might have been what they were doing."

Whatever the reason, this was not the time to try it.

"There is some good ice on some parts of the lake," said Alton Smith, who owns Mon-Dak Marine in Glasgow. "In places, there is six to eight inches of good ice. In the backs of bays, there may be a foot of ice. But there's a lot of broken ice out there. It can be only one to three inches thick and it's rotten. Stay away from the broken ice."

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