A frozen-cattle ‘conundrum’
Officials still scratching heads over how to handle dilemma
Originally published 2012-04-26
What do you do with a heap of dead, frozen cattle stuck inside a cabin at 11,000 feet?
As the bizarre-sounding story has spread across the country like wildfire, U.S. Forest Service leaders on the White River National Forest are still searching for a punch line.
While, to some, the situation may seem somewhat comical, agency officials are attempting to grasp the serious question of what to do about the carcasses.
Six frozen cows were found by a pair of Air Force Academy cadets while snow-shoeing to a Forest Service cabin located near Conundrum Hot Springs, within in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area between Crested Butte and Aspen, in late March. As of early this week, at least 10 dead cattle — that originated on the Gunnison National Forest — had been found in or around the cabin.
Staff members from the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest ventured eight and a half miles into the wilderness through as much as six feet of snow late last week to get a better handle on the situation.
Spokesman Bill Kight said that the team sampled for asbestos at the cabin, in the event that explosives are ultimately utilized to dislodge the frozen bovine.
“That’s just one way to deal with animal carcasses,” he said. “But it may not be a good option. There could be cows scattered all over the place when the snow melts.”
John Murphy, District Ranger for the Forest Service in Gunnison, confirmed last week that the cattle had originated on the Gunnison Ranger District, and were among 29 yearling heifers that were lost by a local grazing-permit holder in the vicinity of Brush Creek, northeast of Crested Butte, last year. It’s believed the animals may have sought shelter during a snowstorm and became lodged inside the cabin.
Access within the wilderness poses a problem for motorized extraction, and Kight said the district lacks the funding to consider utilizing a helicopter.
Some of the carcasses were located last week within feet of the popular Conundrum Hot Springs, at about 11,200 feet. For that reason, Kight indicated that the animals pose a concern to public health.
“It’s not as easy as just going up there and cutting them up with a chainsaw,” he said. “We want to do what’s best for the public and right now their safety is utmost on our minds.”
The local rancher to whom the cattle belonged spoke to the Times this week on condition of anonymity about the months of searching that he, his hired hands and officials from numerous agencies engaged.
Initially, that meant riding the country numerous times on horseback through October and the first half of November — spanning from West Brush Creek to Taylor Park.
But as cattle were being rounded up last fall, it became apparent that more of the rancher’s cattle had ventured higher into the mountains than is typical.
For example, six cows were found wandering at about 11,500 feet between Twin Lakes and Coffee Pot Pass, and it was realized that search efforts would need to go further — and higher.
However, a snowstorm kept that from happening last fall.
By that time, one flight had already been commissioned to search for the missing cows. The rancher undertook a second flight, but with no luck.
In late December, a friend flew his plane across miles of country without finding the livestock.
And state and federal agencies assisted in the search as well, including Colorado Parks and Wildlife during wintertime game-counting flights.
“We had all kinds of volunteers offer to help and who did help,” the rancher said, for which he’s thankful.
He and his hands continued to return to the grazing allotment in search of the cattle until mid-January — in hopes that the cows may have returned to lower ground amid a deepening snowpack.
It wasn’t until then that the search was finally suspended.
As of early this week, 19 of the missing cows were still unaccounted for.
The rancher estimates that he lost more than $30,000 from the cattle alone — not counting the cost of flights and time spent searching for the animals via horseback.
“There’s also the cost to the ranch of not doing other things we should have been doing with our crew,” he said. “It kind of mounts up.”
The long-time local rancher said he’s never experienced cattle straying from a grazing allotment in the past.
“This is the first time that anything like this has ever happened to me,” he said.
Forest Service spokesman Kight concurred that the agency finds the situation equally odd.
“We’ve never set a precedent like this before,” he added. “You won’t find this one on the books anywhere.”
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or email@example.com)