Saw frozen cows
Rangers believe the animals sought shelter during a snowstorm and got stuck and weren't smart enough to find their way out. The Forest Service said Tuesday the animals came from a herd of 29 cows that went missing last fall from the nearby Gunnison National Forest where the rancher had a permit.
The carcasses were discovered by two Air Force Academy cadets when they snow-shoed up to the cabin in late March. An aerial search failed to turn up any sign of the animals. The cabin is located near the Conundrum Hot Springs, a nine-mile hike from the Aspen area in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area.
Michael Carroll, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society in Colorado, said cattle are often allowed to wander on federal wilderness lands as long as ranchers get a permit from the Forest Service, and sometimes the animals get separated from the herd.
Forest Service spokesman Brian Porter said rangers saw about six cows inside the cabin, and several dead cows lying around the building. "There is a lot of snow, and it's hard to determine how many cows are there," Porter said.
U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin said Tuesday they need to decide quickly how to get rid of the carcasses. "Obviously, time is of the essence because we don't want them defrosting," Segin said.
Segin said officials are concerned about water contamination in the nearby hot springs if the cows start decomposing during the thaw. The options: use explosives to break up the cows, burn down the cabin, or using a helicopters or trucks to haul out the carcasses. But Segin said using helicopters is too expensive and rangers are worried about using trucks in a wilderness area, where the government bars permanent improvements and tries to preserve the natural habitat.
Carroll praised the Forest Service for trying to remove the animals while doing the least damage. He said burning down the cabin or packing out the carcasses are probably the best solutions. "They need to use the minimal tool to get the job done. They don't want to leave the land scarred," he said.
Segin said the Forest Service occasionally uses explosives to destroy carcasses of animals that can't be retrieved."We've used them as a means of disposal to remove dead horses, elk and other animals in areas where it's impossible to get them out," he said.
That's the peculiar puzzle the U.S. Forest Service must solve -- and solve soon, before the spring thaw, according to reports from Colorado.
It seems several lost cows wandering on federal land sought shelter in a Forest Service cabin at Conundrum Hot Springs during a snowstorm, could not figure out how to leave and starved to death, the Aspen Daily News reports (via the Associated Press). Two Air Force cadets discovered the carcasses in late March while snowshoeing in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, about 9 miles from Aspen.
Rangers saw about six cows inside the cabin, and several dead cows outside the cabin at 11,200 feet, Forest Service spokesman Brian Porter told AP.
"There is a lot of snow, and it's hard to determine how many cows are there," he said.
Time is crucial: the feds are concerned about possible contamination of the hot spring if the cows decompose in the thaw.
The animals were from a herd of 29 cows that a rancher reported missing last fall from the nearby Gunnison National Forest, the Forest Service told AP today.
Here's how the Aspen newspaper sums up the bovine predicament:
Initially Forest Service officials said they planned to blow the cows up with explosives — and they still might — but with high fire danger and a current ban on prescribed burns, it could be an issue.
Hauling them out via horses is not feasible since there's still a lot of snow on the 8.5-mile trail down to the Castle Creek Valley floor. And employing a helicopter is too expensive, Forest Service officials said. Motorized vehicles are barred from wilderness-designated areas, creating another limitation. Burning the cows and the cabin, which is not historic and was going to be razed at some point, is an option. There is enough snow there now that lifting the fire ban for this particular instance also could be considered. And an effort to locate the rancher who owned — and apparently lost the cows — is underway.
U.S. Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin told AP that helicopters would cost too much and that rangers are worried about damage from trucks in wilderness habitat. The Forest Service occasionally uses explosives to destroy carcasses of animals that can't be retrieved, he added.
Michael Carroll, speaking for the Wilderness Society in Colorado, told AP that burning down the (manure-filled) cabin or packing out the carcasses are probably the best solutions.
"They need to use the minimal tool to get the job done," he said. "They don't want to leave the land scarred."
"The hardest part for us is the lack of being able to take care of our cattle," Trampe, a third-generation rancher, said. "That really hurts. We're still shaken over it. There is an emotional part of it that continues to drag on us. You get to the point you don't know if you want to continue in the business after something like this."
Trampe has been a rancher in Gunnison for 40 years. He told 9NEWS the cows would've lived on the ranch for eight to 10 years, producing calves. We lost part of our mother cow factory in the mountains this fall," he said.
He says the dead cows represent $30,000 worth of cattle.
A hiker who's taken this trail for the last 10 years sent 9NEWS pictures of the cows while they were still alive.
The hiker, who asked to remain anonymous, sent 9NEWS a number of photos Tuesday morning, saying he snapped those while hiking with a friend in early November.
The man also said he emailed the Forest Service back then telling them the cows may not belong there. He has not provided 9NEWS the copy of the email he says he sent.
Bill Kight, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, told 9NEWS the agency did not receive any notice of the animals being stranded until their bodies were found by Air Force Academy cadets snowshoeing in late March.
"Had we received the email or had been notified in person or by phone that there were cows in the Conundrum Springs area, we certainly would've contacted the person holding the grazing permit on the Gunnison National Forest and they would've gladly removed them," Kight said. "Because they've incurred a lot of expense since then, flying over the area in an airplane trying to find the cows, we would've gladly come and herded the cows where they could've been loaded up and removed."
Kight believes the cows came over the Elk Mountains and West Elk, which would've been at least 12 to 15 miles from where they started out in the Gunnison National Forest.
"In my 35 years of government service I've never known a situation like this for the cows to come over the entire mountain range down into a different forest. This is a new one for me," Kight said.
Kight says Trampe reported 29 cows missing - all but 19 are accounted for and six were found inside the cabin.
"It's a very heavily used area, the trails that go to Conundrum Hot Springs. We're just asking the public to help us out and stay away from there for the next month," Kight said. "It's not going to be a good place to go hiking and we certainly want to keep the public safe is foremost in our minds."
Trampe says he and his employees spent days and thousands of dollars looking for the cattle.
He told 9NEWS he first noticed the cows missing the first part of October, when he gathered livestock from the land. He then spent months searching for them on horseback and three different times using an airplane looking for tracks.
Trampe's girlfriend also hiked a part of the trail, but didn't see anything.
"We were thinking if they were there, someone would've said something to the Forest Service," he said.
Trampe says he talked to every hunter, and every agency that looks at the land. He searched their permitted country, as well as adjoining areas.
"We would've gone to any length to find the cattle. And we thought we went to every length to find them," he said. "We ran out of time to get into the hills. We got snowed out."
Gary Beals was hiking with the anonymous photographer. He says they were in the area Nov. 11 and 12 and saw the cows then.
"They were hiding out in the shelter. There's some pretty good snow up there," Beals told 9NEWS. "We were on snow shoes coming up. We actually followed the cow tracks up towards the hot springs because it got a little deep in the open area and we were a little tired. They actually helped us get up the hill."
Beals says it was already cold, with the temperatures dipping below zero with a lot of snow.
"We were very surprised. We've never seen any animals up there before," he said. "It's a long ways up. They must have gone in a day or two before us."
Beals says he found it hard to believe that between November and March no one else saw and reported the animals.
"I would expect somebody saw them, especially the weather they way it was so warm," Beals said. "I guarantee people were up at Conundrum. We made an effort to contact the Forest Service. I thought somebody else would've reported it as well."
The U.S. Forest Service says many people may not have come through the area in the winter because of the snowpack and the avalanche danger.
Lee Ann Loupe, the spokesperson for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, told 9NEWS the cows were supposed to be grazing on their allotment on the Gunnison National Forest land.
Loupe says Trampe was rounding up his cattle in October or November when he noticed he was 29 head short.
Typically, ranchers get permission for a certain number of cattle to graze on Forest Service land. They feed from late spring to early summer to the fall, when the ranchers move them.
Loupe says Trampe spent a few months, until January, riding the area, using aircraft to look for the animals, but had to quit in January because the snow got too deep.
"The owner feels badly for the loss, and financially put a lot of time and energy in finding them earlier," Loupe said. "He's been cooperating and working with the Forest Service to address the situation. The biggest concern everyone has right now is addressing the problem, before the snow melts, bear and other predators finding a food source."
The U.S. Forest service has not yet decided what to do with the cabin where some of the dead cows were found, but the cow carcasses will be chopped up and taken to the woods.