ASPEN - A U.S. Forest Service team learned Friday the agency will have to dispose of considerably more than six cow carcasses discovered last month in a cabin near Conundrum Hot Springs.
A team from the agency hiked and skied the eight miles to the hot springs southwest of Aspen on Friday and discovered additional carcasses buried in the snow outside the cabin, according to Bill Kight, a spokesman for the White River National Forest.
"We've got quite a few carcasses," Kight said. "It's more than six, but I can't give you a number yet."
The cattle wandered off a grazing allotment in the adjacent Gunnison National Forest in late fall and died of exposure at some point in the winter. A total of 29 cattle were reported missing by a rancher, according to the Forest Service. It's unknown how many met their fate at Conundrum.
The Forest Service team took from the cabin samples of plaster, which will be tested for asbestos, Kight said. The results will determine if the cabin can be burned and how the materials are handled.
The team also took water samples from Conundrum Hot Springs to see if the water is contaminated by dead cattle. Some of the carcasses are within a couple of dozen feet of the hot springs, Kight said.
If the popular hot springs area in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness is contaminated, it might have to be closed to public use, Kight said. Such an undertaking would be next to impossible because the agency doesn't have the ability to post a staff member at the hot springs to keep bathers out, he said. The hot springs could still be posted with warnings about contamination.
The team also took pictures to help determine how to deal with the carcasses.
Even if the hot springs aren't contaminated, a short-term closure is possible. Hungry bears, human bathers and thawing cow carcasses aren't a good mix, according to agency officials.
Scott Snelson, Aspen-Sopris district ranger, told National Public Radio Friday that agency officials are concerned about eager hikers going to the area before the disposal of the carcasses.
"We're concerned primarily about bears are coming out from their hibernation, and they're awful hungry," Snelson told NPR. "So we've got a lot of hikers eager to go up there with our early snowmelt. And we want to make sure that folks don't get hurt. And if we've got aggressive bears up there, that we don't get the bears in trouble as well."
Kight said the hike to the hot springs remains difficult despite the rapidly receding snowpack. The Forest Service team encountered snow up to six feet deep in patches. The hot springs is at 11,200 feet.
The Forest Service wants to get the results of the plaster and water tests back as quickly as possible so it can devise a plan of action. It is complicated by the fact that the site is in wilderness, where motorized and mechanized uses are banned.
Snelson told NPR that using explosives to break down the carcasses into smaller parts remains an option though it is an "inexact science." Burning the carcasses is the "likely" option, he said.