How do you get rid of dead cows frozen solid inside a cabin on federal land high in the Rocky Mountains? And how do you do it without causing major environmental damage?
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 nine 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 paper 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."
By Michael Winter, USA TODAY