Several dead cows discovered at Conundrum Hot Springs were likely part of a herd of 29 cattle that went missing last fall from the nearby Gunnison National Forest, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Officials from that agency were to meet Tuesday to consider various methods of removing the carcasses from the popular backcountry destination located at 11,200 feet in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area.
Given the complexity of removing the animals from the area, which is accessed by a 8.5-mile trail from Conundrum Creek Road, no decision has been made yet, said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin.
But it will have to be made soon, as the spring thaw will create a new set of problems such as water contamination from decomposition and potential bear-human interaction if the cows’ location becomes a feeding ground.
“That’s what is causing them to want to do something soon,” Segin said.
The cows were discovered by two Air Force Academy cadets when they snowshoed up in late March. They had planned to sleep in a Forest Service cabin but couldn’t because the animals were piled up inside, frozen solid. Other visitors to the area have reported that there are several other dead cows lying around the building.
Blowing the animals up with explosives, burning the cabin or leaving them are all being considered. The area is off-limits to motorized use so trucks and chain saws aren’t options. Neither is a helicopter, which is too expensive, according to Forest Service officials. The area is still difficult to access and horses wouldn’t be able to negotiate the steep descent, according to officials.
It’s not known if all 29 missing cows met their fate at Conundrum. The snow is deep enough that they could still be buried.
Segin said he didn’t know if the Forest Service has been in contact with the rancher who had a grazing permit for the area. Cattle are often allowed to wander on federal wilderness lands as long as ranchers get a permit from the Forest Service, and sometimes animals get separated from the herd.
When the rancher learned they were missing last fall, an aerial search was launched but failed to turn up any sign of the animals.
Officials have theorized that the cows most likely went into the cabin seeking warmth and shelter during one of the first snowstorms this season, and then got stuck inside and starved to death.
It’s not known when the Forest Service will make a decision on how to dispose of the animals but the mission is expected to be complete within weeks, Segin said.
He noted that he fielded about 35 phone calls from the media on Tuesday inquiring about the situation; other Forest Service officials reported that they have received numerous calls from people who think they have the solution to the problem. Most of the ideas — think hand saws, chain saws, WD-40 and tarps — appear half baked.
Editor’s note: Associated Press writer Steven Paulson contributed to this article.