Deer rescue at Lake Powell turns out swimmingly

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 29 2010 12:49 a.m. MDT

Sean Spencer, conservation officer from the Division of Wildlife Resources, chases a mule deer in Moqui Canyon of Lake Powell to rescue and return it to solid ground.

Cheston Slater

LAKE POWELL — A hungry mule deer on the cliffs of Lake Powell took to the air, then jumped into the water Saturday, before being returned to solid ground by officers from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

The four-by-four point buck was trapped in Moqui Canyon, about two or three miles north, or "up lake," of Bullfrog Marina, said Sean Spencer, a conservation officer who assisted in the rescue.

The buck had found a way down the 200-foot rock walls of the canyon, but was unable to get back up. Boaters alerted the Division of Wildlife Resources that a buck was swimming between narrow ledges. Spencer rushed to the general area, where he searched for the stranded animal.

"I think there was a chance he had been there for a bit," Spencer said. "I think he was a little bit thin."

Spotting him was one thing, but figuring out how to help him was another.

"I can't see any good way that he's going to be able to get out," Spencer recalls thinking. "Any of the ledges he gets on, he's not going to be able to climb out of the canyon, and if he gets in the water and swims, he's got a long swim ahead of him, and if he gets turned around, he's probably going to drown in here."

Because of the remoteness of the canyon, it would take a day for Spencer to get tranquilizers for the animal. So after consulting with some supervisors, he opted to try to lasso the buck and ferry it to safety.

He contacted state park rangers on another boat in the canyon for help.

"Let's try and get this buck," he said. "If I can get him to jump off the ledge into the water, he'll be easier to grab."

Spencer climbed out onto the ledge and shooed the animal off.

"Sure enough, he runs and jumps off the other end. And it was quite the leap — he tucked in his front legs and just did this huge swan dive right into the water, and he was off swimming," Spencer said.

The mule deer swam fast, and the rope the officers had on hand was not of the lassoing variety. It was thick and heavy, but with a lot of team work, and Spencer's hearkening to his Texas roots, they got him hooked around the antlers, and pulled up alongside him in the boat. Afraid the animal would drown if they tried to simply tug him to safety, Spencer made the call to bring the deer on board. The animal was pretty mild during the boarding process, but that soon changed.

"Once he got in the boat … the fight was on," Spencer said. "All three of us dog-piled this deer in the boat. I'm yelling, 'Watch the antlers, don't hurt the deer, everybody be careful' … and he's kicking. He's not having a good time.

"He had just rubbed off his velvet, so his antlers were very, very sharp."

After hog-tying the considerably-larger-than-a-hog buck, they blind-folded it and drove to the other side of the lake, where the cliffs are less sheer and the food is plentiful.

"The big commotion seemed to be over at that point," Spencer said. The four men dragged the animal into shallow water and up onto shore, where they took off its restraints all at once.

"The buck stands up and takes off running as if he's just fine, and kind of goes up and over the hillside and out of sight," Spencer said. "It seemed to have a pretty good ending."

Onlookers who had followed the drama let out cheers from their boats as they watched the animal run off.

Spencer said he's had "kind of weird calls here and there" during his career, but everything turned out swimmingly in this case.

"The goal is to not get anybody injured, but also to help the animal as much as we can," he said. "And hopefully, the animal has a good outcome."

Email: mfarmer@desnews.com

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