Forest Service asks people to stay away for a month
Even after last Monday’s storm, it’s already an early spring in the high country. But the hike over to Conundrum Hot Springs might be one to skip this season, after the U.S. Forest Service opted to scatter the remains of 11 cows found dead in the vicinity of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area’s most popular overnight destination.
The dead cows were part of a group of 29 that wandered off one of local rancher Bill Trampe’s grazing allotments in the East River area late last fall. Then a group of hikers saw and took photos of several of the cows in a cabin near the Conundrum hot springs in November. After that, Trampe reportedly hired several flights aiming unsuccessfully at spotting the lost cattle.
There was no sign of the cows until six were found dead in early spring, still in the cabin, with another that had succumbed just outside. Several others were found in the vicinity of the hot springs, and one had died in the creek downstream. Forest Service officials agree that it’s only a matter of time before others appear from the snowpack.
That left the Forest Service with an urgent need to remove the animals, before the backcountry opened for the season and a flood of hikers descended on the hot spring. Being located in a Wilderness Area, where mechanized activities are prohibited, their options came down to cutting up the dead cows, burning or blowing up the cabin or leaving the cows where they were. Scattering the remains seemed to be most in-line with the area’s Wilderness values.
But late last week, after a ranger and a volunteer from the Aspen-Sopris ranger district, along with three friends of Trampe’s, had spread pieces of the 11 decomposing carcasses around the vicinity of the hot springs, the question of how travel to Conundrum would be affected started circulating.
Forest service officials on both sides of the mountain have taken different approaches in making the public aware of the threats posed by the dead cows. According to a report in the Aspen Times, The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District placed a sign at the trailhead Thursday that warned backpackers that the carcasses might contaminate the valley’s water sources and that a dangerous cast of scavengers could also be nearby.
But according to White River National Forest public information officer Bill Kight, the sign showing a dead cow was too graphic for some and might have caused unnecessary concern, since the Forest Service had determined the dead cows didn’t pose a threat to the water supply. So the sign was changed by one that recommends safe food storage practices in the backcountry.
Conundrum Hot Springs is 8.5 miles from an easily accessible trailhead near Aspen, and one of the most visited destinations in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, according to the Forest Service.
Last year, they issued 830 overnight permits for more than 2,000 people and 100 dogs setting out from the Aspen trailhead toward Conundrum Hot Springs. Traffic from the Crested Butte side was lighter, with only 176 people registering overnight stays with the Forest Service. However, it’s unlikely everyone who hiked to Conundrum to spend the night last year registered and day hikers aren’t asked to register at all.
And all the attention has taken its toll on the Conundrum Valley. A 2006 study of conditions around the Conundrum hot springs found that “partially unburied feces” could be seen from 71 percent of the campsites in the area. Fecal coliform bacteria have also been found in water around the springs.
But with such a buzz about the Conundrum hot springs, the U.S. Forest Service has few options to deal with the hordes or the problems they create in what is meant to be an untrammeled setting. In 2009, the Forest Service got a $2,950 grant from the Aspen Skiing Co. employees’ Environment Foundation to buy bags for backpackers to pack their poop out in.
Kight says those kinds of programs have shown some positive returns and that the Forest Service would rather not restrict the number of permits issued to backpackers, but adds, “That may be our solution at this point and that may be our next step.”
Until then, Forest Service officials can only ask that the public care for its public lands and minimize impacts to the backcountry. With cow parts scattered around the Conundrum Valley, Forest Service officials are asking the public to avoid the Conundrum area for at least a month to allow nature to take its course in disposing of the carcasses as well as clearing the streams of any possible contamination.