Rangers debate message to give to Conundrum Creek trail users
ASPEN – Now that cow carcasses have been cleared from the area, the U.S. Forest Service is trying to determine what exactly to tell hikers heading to the popular Conundrum Hot Springs.
The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District posted a sign at the Conundrum Creek trailhead Thursday morning warning backpackers that the cow carcasses might have contaminated water sources in the valley and that the carcasses could attract bears and other predators.
The Gunnison Ranger District preferred a different message, so by Thursday afternoon the sign was replaced by one more benign. The new sign doesn’t mention the cow carcasses or the possibility of water contamination. Instead it urges backpackers to follow bear-proof food storage practices. The sign includes a diagram showing how to safely prepare and store food to avoid conflicts with bears.
Both ranger districts have an interest in activity at the Conundrum Hot Springs. One popular trail starts southwest of Aspen and climbs 8.5 miles to the hot springs. The popular pool also can be accessed via the Crested Butte side of the mountain range, via Copper Lake and Triangle Pass.
Rangers found 11 cows in the Conundrum Hot Springs area this spring. They are part of a herd of 29 cows that wandered off a rancher’s grazing allotment on the Crested Butte side of the high peaks and made their way to Conundrum Valley. They froze to death sometime last winter. The other 18 cows are presumed dead, but their carcasses haven’t been found yet.
Andrew Larson, lead wilderness ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, is concerned that the hot springs area might be particularly attractive to bears, mountain lions and coyotes right now because of the cow carcasses. The dead cows were found within one-half mile of the hot springs. At least three of the cows died in and around designated campsites. Larson and a Forest Service volunteer pulled two carcasses out of campsites and into nearby woods to decompose. A third carcass was pulled from Conundrum Creek, downstream from the springs.
Larson said Friday evening that one of the carcasses they hauled off to the woods was dragged back into a clearing Thursday night, presumably by a bear.
Six other carcasses of cows that died in a cabin near the hot springs were butchered and dispersed in the woods on Friday. Three friends of the rancher who owns the cows hiked to the site and carried out the nasty chore. They finished their work on Friday afternoon, Larson said.
It is unknown if the dead cows have contaminated the hot springs, Larson said. While there is a fair amount of cow manure around the springs, no carcasses have been found yet above the popular destination. There is still a significant amount of snow at elevations higher than the springs, so additional carcasses could be buried.
Larson said the Forest Service’s biggest concern is for public safety from predators. As the snow melts, more hikers are expected to visit the valley. It’s one of the most popular destinations in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. There are no current plans to restrict public access to the hot springs vicinity.
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