SNOWMASS VILLAGE - The bones of a woolly mammoth estimated to be 10,000 years old were found outside Snowmass Village Thursday evening, a discovery one official heralded as "one of the most significant finds in Colorado."
The operator of a bulldozer working on a reservoir project noticed what turned out to be rib bones sticking out of the ground. Staff from the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District have since removed and cleaned scores of well-preserved bones, including a femur, the end of a tusk and parts of the mandible. Officials from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science have also examined the bones and the site.
The district has been in contact with paleontologists who have said the find is "something very unique," said Kit Hamby, manager of Snowmass Water and Sanitation.
"These are actual bones, which is what differentiates them from fossilized dinosaur bones," he said. "Paleontologists we have spoken with told us it is one of the most significant finds" in the state.
Some of the bones, which Hamby described as "pretty amazing," may be on display Wednesday when the district board meets.
The woolly mammoth was found in 4 1/2 feet of "pure peat," according to Kent Olson, a superintendent for Gould Construction, a contractor on the site. Scientists say peat, which is partly decayed, moisture-absorbing plant matter, can help preserve mammalian tissue for thousands of years without fossilizing bone.
"This is a really exciting time for Snowmass Village and everyone in Pitkin County," Mayor Bill Boineau said. "Hell, there's some real history here."
Mammoths were common on the Colorado Plateau until about 8,000 years ago, according to the Page Paleontology Science Center, which studies paleontological discoveries on the plateau. They are believed to have gone extinct amid changing weather patterns and other factors.
But finding the remains at such a high elevation is "fairly rare," said Larry Agenbroad, Ph.D. He is director of the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs in South Dakota and professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University.
"They do get that high occasionally," he said, mentioning a mammoth found in Huntington, Utah, at a similar elevation.
Agenbroad said the Denver scientists likely used preservative agents on the bones. Efforts to reach officials from the museum were unsuccessful.
The find could put Snowmass Village on the map as an area where more discoveries are possible, Boineau said.
"It could really be a draw for the Pitkin County and Snowmass Village area," he said.
Boineau said removing all of the bones could take some time. He expressed concern about possibly looting at the site and said he was hopeful that police officers and private security guards will make efforts to secure the location. The Aspen Times is not disclosing the mammoth's location.
Olson said 24-hour security is now in place around the 11 1/2-acre project, and the site of the bones, about 100 square feet, has been flagged to protect it. There are also plans to construct a chain-link fence around the site this week.
Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield echoed the security concerns, but also said that the overall water-supply project was too critical to be halted for long. Olson said work temporarily stopped after the discovery but has since resumed.
Hatfield said he was stunned upon learning the news.
"We're aware that the site is of archaeological significance," he said. "I really hope the site can be preserved as an important archaeological find."
At the same time, he puts just as much "weight into hoping that it doesn't interfere with development of the reservoir." He called the project an enormously (one might say mammothly) important "amenity for the sustainability of Snowmass Village."
Enlarging the reservoir will take another 18 months to two years, Hamby said. The project, aimed at improving water storage and snow-melt infrastructure, involves the removal of tons of rock and sediment.
"This is going to be an exciting time for Snowmass Village," Boineau said. "We're going to have to get a handle on it and not let people disturb it."
It was late in the work day.
A bulldozer operator had been pushing around piles of dirt for hours and so could have been forgiven for not seeing, or ignoring, odd shapes arising from the ground in the fading light.
But the operator did notice and did as instructed: "He was told that if he saw anything abnormal to just stop. And that's what he did," said Kent Olson, Gould Construction superintendent.
Olson and other workers examined the site, initially thinking the bones were likely from a cow.
"I started looking at the bones that were on the [bulldozer's] blade," Olson said. "There were rib bones, pieces of skull."
But one stood out, and it left the workers in disbelief.
"Then we found a jawbone that was enormous, to say the least," he said. "It was something we had never seen before. That's when the excitement began."
He notified his bosses and the site owner's representative. Officials with the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District were also soon told.
"It's so exciting to discover something like that," Olson said. "Once in a lifetime."
Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield praised workers and water and sanitation staff for paying due diligence.
"I have to credit the water and sanitation district and the people doing the work for being aware, getting on it right away and notifying the right people," he said.
The water and sanitation board will meet Wednesday, likely at the Snowmass Club, to discuss the bones and the site, said District Manager Kit Hamby. Several of the mammoth bones will be on display, he predicted, and the public and members of the media are invited.
Hatfield said the discovery is virtually unprecedented, and finding the proper protocols to follow could be interesting.
"In my almost 10 years on the [county] board, we have never faced an issue like this," Hatfield said. "Federal guidelines are possible, and we'll really have to delve into what it means [for] having the project go forward while respecting the site."
- Chad Abraham