Local forest officials are leaning toward not using explosives or fire to dispose of the dead cows discovered this spring near a popular backcountry camping destination outside of Aspen.
Instead, plans being formed this week will have a U.S. Forest Service crew hike 8.5 miles to a cabin located near Conundrum Hot Springs with hand saws, and cut the carcasses into “appropriate-sized” pieces to disperse in the surrounding wilderness, said White River National Forest spokesman Bill Kight. Carnivorous wildlife is expected to take care of the rest.
“We’ll get the effects of the decomposition spread out,” Kight said, adding that an official decision is expected to be signed-off on mid-week. “It may take a while.”
A half-dozen dead cows were discovered in March by two Air Force Academy cadets who had snowshoed to the cabin located near the hot springs at 11,200 feet in elevation. They had planned to sleep in the cabin but could not because the animals were piled up inside, frozen solid. Upon their return to Aspen, they informed rangers with the White River National Forest.
The cows are believed to have sought shelter in the cabin during an early-winter snowstorm, but became too packed inside to get out, causing them to perish. A rancher with a grazing permit in the nearby Gunnison National Forest reported that 29 of his cattle went missing in the fall, possibly explaining where the animals came from. There are believed to be multiple other dead cows in the area, but it’s unclear how many.
When first informed of the situation, Forest Service officials had considered blowing the cows up with explosives, or setting the cabin on fire. It’s imperative to do something with the carcasses before the warm weather begins drawing the thousands of hikers who visit Conundrum each year. If the cattle are allowed to thaw and decompose where they are, it could lead to water contamination in the hot springs, as well as conflicts between humans and bears, which will be drawn to the meat.
Using saws and spreading the cow parts around was ultimately recognized as the path of least resistance, Kight said.
“It’s the easiest and quickest way to make it happen,” he said.
Explosives are expensive, and the logistics of using dynamite or fire to get rid of the cows would prove challenging, particularly with this season’s wildfire worries.
The cows are located in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, which means no chainsaws would be allowed. Higher-ups in the Forest Service could waive the rules in the event of an emergency, but in this case, no such waiver is anticipated, Kight said.
It’s unclear what the exact composition of the saw team will be.
If more cow carcasses are found as the snow melts, forest officials will deal with those situations when they arise, Kight said.