Forest Service mulls whether Conundrum warning is enough

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
Max Vadnais/The Aspen Times

ASPEN – A U.S. Forest Service team will hike to Conundrum Hot Springs Thursday to see if the 11 cow carcasses discovered this spring are attracting bears and other wildlife that could present a threat to soakers as the summer nears.

Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson said the agency wants to make some sort of assessment before Memorial Day weekend, which could be a busy time at Conundrum Hot Springs given the warm weather this spring. If the carcasses have attracted bears and they are hanging out in the area, a closure is possible.

“My first inclination is to keep it open,” Snelson said.

A rancher on the Crested Butte side of the mountains lost 29 cows last fall. Eleven dead cows were found in the designated campsites around Conundrum Hot Springs and inside an old, open cabin less than one-half mile from the springs.

When forest rangers and reporters visited the site two weeks ago, there was still too much snow upvalley from the hot springs to determine if more cows died there. Andrew Larson, lead wilderness ranger, and a Forest Service volunteer pulled three carcasses out of designated campsites into the surrounding woods. They pulled a fourth carcass out of Conundrum Creek. A fifth carcass was found in the woods a short distance from campsites.

Three friends of the rancher butchered the six cows that froze to death in the cabin and scattered the remains in the woods.

Forest Service personnel at the agency’s visitor center in Aspen have advised people who have inquired about the status of Conundrum to stay away from the hot springs for now, Larson said. The agency wants hikers to avoid the area until it’s known if wildlife is feasting on the carcasses and presents a danger to humans who venture near. It’s possible the carcasses have been cleaned already and the threat is diminished.

“That’s the hope – they’re going to get up there and find nothing but bones,” Larson said.

The trailhead southwest of Aspen is marked with two signs. One provides general information about bear-proof food preparation and storage at a backcountry camp. It’s the type of sign that could be erected anywhere in the White River National Forest where bears are present.

The second sign is very explicit about the potential danger in Conundrum Valley.

“!!ATTENTION!! Cow carcasses are present in the Conundrum Hot Springs area,” the sign reads. “Travel to the area is not recommended at this time due to the following hazards.”

The sign goes on to describe water-quality risks and possible wildlife conflicts. A picture on the sign shows a bear gnawing the rib bones of an animal. The picture wasn’t taken at Conundrum, Larson said. No one has witnessed a bear feasting on the cow carcasses.

The water-quality warning reads, “Cattle manure and decomposing cow carcasses in the area surrounding the hot springs have the potential to contaminate surface water and the hot-springs pool with Salmonella, E. coli, Cryptosporidium, fecal coliform and other contagion.”

The sign about wildlife conflicts warns that black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, vultures and ravens are among the species that might be feeding on the carcasses. The fear is that people could be hiking into an area with high bear activity.

The Conundrum Hot Springs are 8.5 miles from the trailhead.

While bears wouldn’t typically be found at the 11,200-foot elevation of the hot springs at this time of year, this isn’t a typical year. Two weeks ago, snow was already melted to about 10,000 feet in elevation in Conundrum Valley. Warm weather has cleared more of the trail since then. High water from snow melt also poses less of a challenge than usual.

While there is a threat of wildlife conflicts, a “pre-emptive closure” wouldn’t be consistent with wilderness-management practices, Larson noted. The Forest Service tends to warn people about natural threats in wilderness and then let them decide if the risk is worth the visit.

Snelson said risks are inherent when visiting wilderness. The Forest Service is trying to convey that message with the signs posted at the trailhead.