SEATTLE - A herd of elk died after falling through thin ice while crossing a reservoir in northeastern Oregon, a state wildlife official said on Wednesday. Forty-one elk were feeding in an area near the 58-mile-long (93-km-long) Brownlee Reservoir, a body of water formed by a dam on the Snake River, and ventured out across a sheet of ice possibly to take a drink of water as they moved to other feeding or bedding areas, said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Phillip Perrine. But part of the ice shelf on the north side of the reservoir had been weakened by the steady flow of creek water and some of the elk broke through the ice, Perrine said.  Perrine described the frustration and sadness he and other wildlife officials felt when they arrived at the reservoir but were unable to rescue the animals because of the unstable ice. He said he watched as four elk failed to swim to safety some 200 to 300 yards (meters) offshore.

“It was a very sad, tough situation,” Perrine said by telephone, “The worst feeling.”

Elk are enormous but surprisingly graceful mammals who often venture down from higher elevations in search of food during the winter.

Elk are prized by hunters for their size and lean meat - an adult bull can weigh several hundred pounds (kg) with antlers stretching several feet wide.

People on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Facebook page expressed sadness over the incident and that the meat was not donated to charity.

Perrine said in response that the carcasses would be feasted on by birds and other scavengers, and it was unsafe to try to collect the meat. He also said the herd’s tracks did not suggest they were escaping predators, such as wolves, and that decomposing animals would not threaten water quality in the reservoir, given its size.