Hikers with handsaws to cut cows on Thursday
A rancher from Gunnison County who lost his herd of cattle last fall will send three ranch hands to Conundrum Hot Springs later this week to cut up and disperse the remains of six dead cows found in a U.S. Forest Service cabin, with officials from that agency overseeing the operation.
Andrew Larson, the lead wilderness ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District for the White River National Forest, along with a volunteer, plan to meet workers from Trampe Ranch on Thursday. They expect to stay overnight and work through Friday to get the job done.
Larson and the volunteer will hike 8.5 miles up from Conundrum Creek Road in the Castle Creek Valley to the popular backcountry camping destination. The area is in federally designated wilderness where no motorized vehicles or machinery are allowed. The ranch workers will travel from the Gunnison side and use hand saws to cut the carcasses into “appropriate-sized” pieces to disperse in the surrounding wilderness.
Nature will take it from there, between decomposition and hungry wildlife.
Forest Service officials had first contemplated using explosives to blow up the carcasses or burn down the cabin, which has been deemed non-historic and has been on the books to be torn down sometime in the future. But either of those options would involve their own potential impacts and require lengthy analysis.
“It would have required environmental assessment work and that’s not the fastest way to go,” said White River National Forest spokesman Bill Kight.
Because of the fear of water contamination in the nearby hot springs and potential bear-human conflict as the spring thaw continues on the anticipated feeding ground, officials feel they need to act swiftly.
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. The Gunnison rancher, who holds a grazing permit in the nearby Gunnison National Forest, reported that 29 of his cattle went missing in the fall, and at the time undertook an aerial search to find the animals, but to no avail. There are believed to be multiple other dead cows in the area, but it’s unclear how many.
Kight noted that the rancher who had the grazing permit for the area has been extremely cooperative.
“You can’t get a better permittee,” Kight said.
Larson said if other carcasses are found in the area, another plan will be formulated to deal with them in the future, if needed.
“This trip is to deal with the six in the cabin,” he said. He added that often times carcasses left in the elements already are decomposed or half-eaten, which may be the case at Conundrum and won’t require human action.
Larson said he doesn’t anticipate the operation “to take that long.” Although, he did acknowledge that he’s never done this type of work before.
Kight said the Forest Service’s main concern is public safety and the agency is asking that the public not go on the trail in the coming weeks. If too many people do not heed that request, it may be necessary to close the trail.
“Please stay away from the area for the next month,” he said.