Moo-ving cows from Conundrum a challenge for U.S. Forest Service

by Carolyn Sackariason, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Several dead cows at Conundrum Hot Springs have U.S. Forest Service officials scratching their heads in an attempt to hatch a scheme to remove them before the spring thaw and hikers descend upon the popular backcountry destination at 11,200 feet.

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 in it, frozen solid. Upon their return to Aspen, they informed the Aspen ranger district for the White River National Forest.

Initially Forest Service officials said they planned to blow the cows up with explosives — and they still might — but with high fire danger and a current ban on prescribed burns, it could be an issue.

Hauling them out via horses is not feasible since there’s still a lot of snow on the 8.5-mile  trail down to the Castle Creek Valley floor. And employing a helicopter is too expensive, Forest Service officials said. Motorized vehicles are barred from wilderness-designated areas, creating another limitation. Burning the cows and the cabin, which is not historic and was going to be razed at some point, is an option. There is enough snow there now that lifting the fire ban for this particular instance also could be considered. And an effort to locate the rancher who owned —  and apparently lost the cows — is underway.

All options will be put on the table Tuesday when Scott Snelson, Aspen-Sopris ranger with the U.S. Forest Service Forest, meets with his colleagues to discuss what he described as a “tenuous situation.” It’s expected that a game plan will be decided then.

Officials are concerned about water contamination in the nearby hot springs if the cows start decomposing during the thaw.

“We need to dispose of them sooner than later,” Snelson said. “It needs to be done within weeks.”

Brian Porter, who works in visitor information services for the Aspen ranger district, said he hiked to the hot springs on April 6 to assess the situation and confirm the deaths. He took photos and recorded the tags on the cows’ ears.

Whatever the Forest Service decides, removing the animals is not going to be easy. It will likely either be a huge manpower effort or it will be a detailed explosives plan.

 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 in there and starved to death.

Jeff Malin, a Boulder resident who hiked up to the hot springs the day after Porter did, described the area as a “real mess.” Manure can be seen all around the hot springs and the cabin is filled with it.

“They obviously spent a lot of time there,” he said.

Malin was aware of the scene after he read a story in the March 31 edition of the Aspen Daily News.

“We knew what we were getting into,” he said, but the magnitude of it took him back a bit, he said, adding another decomposed and half-eaten cow was spotted by the creek near the last bridge leading to the springs.

“I hope this is not a normal occurrence,” he said.

Snelson said it’s not and he couldn’t recall a similar situation during his tenure at the Forest Service. The situation is not an emergency but more of a nuisance, he said.

Snelson said his district is working with neighboring forest officials to figure out which rancher may have lost his cattle, but it might prove difficult.

“It might be a lot of effort to track [him] down and find out where they came from,” he said.

sack@aspendailynews.com