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Conundrum cleanup begins

Max Vadnais/The Aspen Times
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A wilderness ranger and Forest Service volunteer began the grisly task Thursday of clearing cow carcasses from the most visible areas surrounding the Conundrum Hot Springs.

Andrew Larson, lead wilderness ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, and volunteer Alexandre Roy tied rope to two cows in various stages of decomposition and yanked them out of camping areas at the hot springs and into less visible spots in the woods. They pulled a third carcass from Conundrum Creek. Another cow was left where it died in the woods.

“It’s really not going to be a pleasant place to camp for a while,” Larson said.



An unknown number of cows died last winter around Conundrum Hot Springs. They left a grazing allotment on the Crested Butte side of the high peaks, traveled over Coffee Pot Pass and into Conundrum Valley. Six cows entered an old Forest Service cabin near the hot springs and froze to death. A seventh died just outside the cabin. Two others were a few hundred feet away. A tenth was in the creek just downstream from the popular hot springs. Larson found an 11th carcass Thursday. A significant amount of snow melted since he visited the site two weeks ago.

“I assumed we’d find a lot more,” Larson said.



The carcasses in the cabin provided the most gruesome and unsettling sight. Cows with hides in various shades of brown were laying next to one another. At first glance, one that collapsed in the doorway appeared to have a vacant stare. At closer inspection, its eyeball was missing.

Forest Service officials say 29 cows were missing from rancher Bill Trampe’s herd. Trampe has grazing rights in the Gunnison National Forest, adjacent to the White River National Forest, which includes Conundrum Valley. It’s unknown how many of the 29 cows died in Conundrum Valley. The snowpack is significantly below normal, but pockets of deep snow remain. Larson said additional cows may be buried in the area.

Three friends of Trampe’s headed to the site in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness by foot Thursday. They were loaded down with immense packs that included hand saws, axes, crowbars and sleds. They intend to hack up the six cow carcasses in the cabin and cart the remains into the woods.

The 8.5-mile trip to the site southwest of Aspen took all day for the three workers because of the weight of their packs and snow on the trail. The last 2.5 miles of the trail was covered with snow. Even with snowshoes, the forest officials and reporters traveling to the site were regularly breaking through the snow crust.

Because the site is in designated wilderness, motorized travel isn’t allowed. Even use of mechanized equipment, such as chain saws, isn’t allowed.

The cows that were lost were of various ages and were moms that gave birth to calves each year to replenish the herd. Several of them were probably pregnant when they died last winter since they were with bulls, Trampe’s friends said.

Larson stressed that Trampe didn’t do anything wrong in the incident. He hired an airplane on three occasions to try to find the wayward cows last fall. He also volunteered to help dispose of the carcasses.

Hikers have produced photos showing the cows were alive in November. It’s unknown when they froze to death at the site at 11,200 feet in elevation. Copious amounts of cow manure are in and around the cabin as well as the campsites around the hot springs, indicating they were there for some time.

Larson said the dead cows in the woods wouldn’t be an issue under normal circumstances. If they had died in most other valleys, they would be left to rot, he said. However, Forest Service officials felt they must take action because of public safety. Conundrum Hot Springs is one of the most popular summer destinations for backcountry hikers. Forest Service officials were concerned that the cow carcasses will attract bears and other scavengers when people are visiting.

The decision to drag some of the carcasses into the woods and chop up the carcasses in the cabin and disperse them was the best solution, according to Larson.

“It’s the most wilderness-

appropriate, definitely,” Larson said. Forest Service management practices dictate that minimum action is taken in wilderness.

“That’s the minimum tool, and that’s the wilderness direction, to use the minimum tool,” Larson said.

He headed the Forest Service’s effort to perform a study called a minimum requirement analysis. He examined four options: no action, butcher and scatter the carcasses, burn the cabin and carcasses or blow up the cabin and carcasses with explosives.

Larson said media reports erroneously said blowing up the cabin and carcasses was the intent of the Forest Service. That would only have been pursued as a last resort, he said. Burning the cabin also presents problems because the action would have to be approved by a state of Colorado-certified inspector. That would have required too much time, he said, because Forest Service officials believe hikers will soon start visiting the area.

Larson said it is unknown if the dead cows have contaminated the hot springs. No carcasses have been found above the hot springs. However, there is still a lot of snow higher in the valley so it’s unknown if there are dead cows there.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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