Despite a multiday effort to save a moose stranded on the icy Missouri River along the Montana-North Dakota border, the animal died Tuesday.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks euthanized the young bull dubbed "Bullwinkle" by its rescuers after he continued to lie on the riverbank for the third day in a row in the brutal cold, unable to stand.
The agency said putting down the moose was the humane option, as Montana has no facilities that would rehabilitate such an animal due to concerns about disease.
"We did what we could do, and let Mother Nature try to take its course, but unfortunately the moose didn't get up," regional warden Ryan Kasson said.
The saga started Sunday afternoon when Judd Burman, a resident of Fairview, joined his friend for a helicopter ride over the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. They were out for a “joyride,” he said, scoping out the ice fishing houses atop the frozen water, when they spotted several moose running in the area.
Burman’s friend, the pilot, noticed that one moose appeared immobile on top of the river near the Snowden Bridge fishing access area, which is less than 3 miles west of the state line.
“He circled back around, and I snapped a picture of (the moose),” Burman said. “It was eating at both of us a bit as we were flying back to his place.”
That evening, Burman posted the photo to Facebook and asked if any of his friends wanted to go on a rescue mission.
“They jumped right up,” he said. “It was dark, it was cold, and they said, ‘Let’s go do it.’”
The group numbered 10, including the person who owned the land by the river. They found the moose, which Burman named after the famous cartoon character, about 15 feet from the grassy riverbank. The animal was stuck on a slanted section of the ice.
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They were afraid to get close to him, initially, but eventually realized that he was exhausted and unlikely to threaten their safety. After their initial efforts to rope him failed, they managed to drag him by his back legs off the ice over to the grass.
“We were really hoping he’d pop up and take off and we’d hide behind our pickups, but he just laid there,” Burman said.
The group covered the animal in hay to keep him warm and gave him some water when they checked on him the next morning. Monday afternoon, Burman and his friends tried to help the moose stand, but he still couldn’t bear his own weight.
They left the animal again, and he spent another night on the riverbank as the temperature plummeted to 19 below. Given the wind that night, it felt more like 36 below, said Cory Mottice, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Glasgow.
The temperature barely climbed the next day. Tuesday afternoon, when the wildlife agency dispatched the moose, the high was 9 below.
The group of friends had been in touch with Kasson, the warden, who spent the first part of the week monitoring the animal's condition. He said the moose's front shoulder might have been injured.
A moose unable to stand cannot obtain food or water to gain strength, the wildlife agency said. In such a case, the moose likely would grow weaker and die, or become a target for predators.
The moose's body will be tested for diseases and will be donated to a local food bank if the results come back clear, the agency said.
Burman said he was relieved by the outcome.
“I don’t want him to suffer any longer than he has to, and these cold nights are miserable,” he said. “We gave him a fighting chance."