The Forest Service is trying to figure out how to get rid of a half-dozen frozen cows crowded inside a small cabin in the Colorado high country before the carcasses thaw and become bear bait in the popular hiking area near Aspen.
The cattle apparently sought refuge in the structure during a sudden snowstorm and subsequently froze to death, forest officials say. The gruesome scene was discovered by a couple of snowshoeing Air Force cadets in late March.
Rangers say that to avoid potential dangerous interaction between humans and bears, they need to remove the cattle before the snow melts and hungry bears from all over come out of hibernation and are drawn to the smell of the thawing cows.
“That’s not a good mix,” said Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin.
But getting around environmental rules and regulations, especially in designated wilderness areas where the cows expired, is proving to be a conundrum.
Using chain saws to cut up the cows would be an option, but chain saws are prohibited in wilderness areas; removing 6,000 consolidated pounds of frozen cow from the abandoned mining cabin would be a colossal task with a machete.
Even if the rangers could remove the carcasses from inside the cabin, they can’t truck the remains out of the area—no roads or motorized vehicles are allowed in wilderness areas.
The option of airlifting the cows with a helicopter won’t fly either; using the aircraft in this manner over a wilderness area is off-limits.
Fire, explosives not uncommon
That leaves the rangers with two possibilities—fire, and explosives. Interestingly, this is not an uncommon solution for the Forest Service to remove large dead animals that are determined to be a public health concern in popular recreation areas.
“One of the options the Forest Service utilizes is the use of explosives to remove trees or wildlife like elk that are directly on trails, and one way to dispose of them is to blow them up and scatter the remains to speed up composition,” Segin said.
“The other option is fire to burn both (cabin and cows) and then disperse everything,” Segin said.
Luckily for the Forest Service, the old cabin was already targeted for demolition and the necessary studies to make sure it held no historical value or contained any hazardous materials such as asbestos were nearly completed.
“So this actually works out well,” Segin said.
Forest Service officials also insist they won’t have to adhere to the most cumbersome regulation of all—the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—even though a court in March struck down the agency’s ability to bypass the law for projects that involve minor environmental impact, such as modernizing outhouses on nature trails.
“We’re doing an analysis of the cabin to make sure there are no hazardous materials, but that didn’t fall under NEPA—the assessment is just for the cabin itself and removing cattle,” Segin said.
The bottom line is, if restrictions weren’t so onerous, the Forest Service would have numerous options to dispose of the animals, like a logging road and the use of vehicles to haul away the carcasses, or helicopter.
A decision needs to be made within the next couple of weeks to beat the spring thaw, and a closure order will be posted near the Conundrum Hot Springs where the cabin is located, to warn hikers of the cow’s fiery removal.