She walked off after a few hours, Hier reports
Crookston DNR Wildlife Manager Ross Hier lives on Holly Avenue in the Woods Addition, and while frequently walking his dogs in the Wildwood Park area this past winter, he often observed a group of deer numbering as many as 11 meandering around the perimeter of the park.
"There were fawns and old women living in the forest right around there, and lately I'd been wondering if some individual would make that mistake and try to cross the river one more time."
One made that mistake on Wednesday, a big doe that Hier is almost certain is pregnant. She broke through the thin ice and struggled for some time before a call was made to Crookston Police seeking assistance. The Fire Department was called and, soon, Hier and firefighter Chris Klawitter, using a neighbor's flat-bottom boat, pulled the completely lethargic deer from the freezing water into the boat, and to shore.
"It looked like it had been struggling for a long time," firefighter Shane Heldstab told the Times, reading from Klawitter's report. "They got it in the boat and it just laid in Ross' lap. It was spent, basically holding on for its life."
After laying on the riverbank for several hours, the doe up and left Wednesday evening, neighbors reported to Hier.
"We pulled her up to a sunny spot on the bank at the end of Holly," Hier told the Times. "I walked the dogs last evening around 6 and she was still there, but her behavior had gone from confused and lethargic to having her head and neck up, with ears twitching and focusing a lot on us. I heard from the neighbors that it wasn't long after that she got up and left."
Hier credited Klawitter and the river-rescue training firefighters undertake each year. "It's a good thing I had Mr. Klawitter with me, a young, studly firefighter," Hier said. "The thing they do, tying the rope to the boat, the firefighters practice that kind of rescue, something I wouldn't have thought about personally. But once we got that deer in the boat and they pulled us back to shore, it sped things up by a ton."
Hier figures the entire rescue took a little more than 10 minutes.
As a wildlife manager, he said there's a fine line when it comes to rescuing an individual or simply letting nature take its course. "Someone saw this animal in the water, called it in and there was a response," Hier said. "But I'm sure other animals have had the same thing happen to them, no one has seen it, and that's that.
"This isn't something I take lightly," he continued. "Saving individual animals isn't what wildlife people are about."
But when he assessed the situation upon arriving at the scene Wednesday shortly after 2:30 p.m., Hier figured they could get the doe out of the water, but they'd have to act fast.
"She'd worked her way into a little channel going upstream, and it looked like we'd just be able to lift her into a boat," he said. "She'd gone from struggling pretty violently to being basically sedated. But it's still a touchy situation; one of those hooves will go right through your stomach."
Hier estimates she weighs 120 to 130 pounds, and she had a pretty round belly, further evidence of her likely pregnancy. "From a biological standpoint, it would be interesting to see what kind of impact that situation is going to have on any fawns in her," he said. "Sometimes being in water that cold, your systems kind of shut down in a survival attempt."
The doe's pregnancy might have actually helped save her, Hier suspects. "It was amazing to me; she was obviously exhausted and no longer treading water, but she was still buoyant," he said. "She must have had some air inside; maybe it's because of the pregnancy, I'm not sure."