Cattle frozen in a USFS cabin at 11,000 feet in Colorado. What to do? Explosives?

In December 2012, we added an update to the story below. The last story is July 4, 2012.

A Forest Service cabin near a wilderness hot spring is filled with frozen dead cattle and the Forest Service doesn’t know quite what to do. Worried that the cattle carcasses will pollute the hot springs the Forest Service wants to get them out of the area but options are limited. They can’t use helicopters because they are expensive and the cabin is in a designated wilderness. They have thought about using explosives or burning the cabin and dead cattle but there are risks involved. Hauling them out with horses isn’t feasible because of the 8 miles of snowy trails.

Moo-ving cows from Conundrum a challenge for U.S. Forest Service
Aspen Daily News Online. April 16, 2012

– – – – – –

The resolution of the matter seems not entirely clear. It appears that most the carraseses were dragged out of the area on snow by wilderness rangers. Others were allowed to decompose, and the end result was that a lot of bears did not show up, and the area was relatively free from contamination beyond the usual from hikers and soakers in the hot springs.

Update1:  May 4, 2012. Conundrum cleanup begins Forest Service officials drag dead cows out of designated camping areas. Scott Condon The Aspen Times Aspen, CO, Colorado

Update2: July 4, 2012.  Conundrum Hot Springs show no ill effects from cow carcasses. By Scott Condon. The Aspen Times. Aspen, CO, Colorado



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  1. WM Avatar

    I kind of like the idea of putting the problem back on the owner of the cattle (apparently all had tags).

    Remove your dead cows at your cost, without environmental degradation or public health risks. The owner/rancher could then turn the matter over to their insurer as a property damage/debris removal matter. If they do not timely remove, then it becomes a liability insurer issue.

    This is not a federal problem, unless somebody else escapes responsibility.

  2. CodyCoyote Avatar

    WM is on the right track here.

    Meanwhile, on the left track , it sounds like a perfect job for either Mythbusters or an elite special forces extraction unit from Homeland Defense. If they aren’t available, there’s always TSA.

  3. Elk275 Avatar

    It is simple, have the rancher bring a team of horses up to the cabin and if the trail needs to be broken let him break the trail. Put a rope on the carcass then drag the carcass an approved distance from the cabin and trail. Then blow the dead animals up. Dead horse are typically blown up in the wildernes.

    The cabin and surrounding area should be cleaned up at the ranchers or insurance companies expense.

  4. Jerry Black Avatar

    I’ve seen stats where as many as 75,000 cows die each year of “high altitude sickness”…….Wolves don’t kill that many!
    From Scientific American:

    Bloated bovines
    Altitude sickness is also the scourge of entirely different population of mountain-dwellers: cows. By the time a rancher spots one lumbering up and down the mountain, its swollen chest sloshing between its front legs, there is not much he can do except move the animal to a lower altitude and hope it lives. Every summer in the U.S. West—when ranchers take cattle to graze on grassy mountain slopes—tens of thousands of cows die because they cannot adapt to the thin, oxygen-poor air. For the past two years, scientists collaborating with a new research facility at New Mexico State University (N.M.S.U.) in Las Cruces have been searching for the genes that determine which cows develop high altitude sickness, aka brisket disease. Once they find the genes, the idea is to breed them out of the bovine population.

    From May to November each year, ranchers in many parts of the western U.S. take their cattle into the mountains where there is more rainfall and more nutritious grass than at lower altitudes—lower oxygen levels notwithstanding. In the Rockies, summer pastures range from 1,500 to 3,650 meters; an altitude greater than 1,500 meters is enough to induce brisket disease. In some parts of Montana and Colorado, cattle graze at altitudes upward of 4,000 meters, says Manny Encinias, director of N.M.S.U.’s Top of the Valle research facility in Valles Caldera National Preserve.

    Whereas some cows take the swift transition to high altitudes in stride, others swell up and die. Not all breeds are equally susceptible, nor are all individuals from a single breed—just as human susceptibility to acute mountain sickness varies. Healthy cows respond to low-oxygen environments in a characteristic way: their hearts beat faster to deliver enough oxygenated blood to the body and brain, and blood vessels in the lung constrict to shunt blood to the organ’s oxygen-rich areas. Cows that develop brisket disease respond similarly, but their body’s compensation is too aggressive for their own good. Blood pressure increases so much that plasma seeps out of the blood vessels into tissues surrounding the heart and lungs, bloating the cows’ chests. And blood vessels in the lung constrict so much that the blood backs up into the heart, which eventually gives out. The cows collapse and die from heart failure.

    1. TC Avatar

      In the real world brisket disease is rare below 6,000 to 7,000 feet. 1500 meters is a bit ludicrious – you cannot even test for it accurately at that altitude. And most ranchers that summer at altitude (or raise cattle year-round > 6,500 feet) are quite aware of it – they PAP test their bulls and cull cows that throw brisket calves. It’s mostly calves that die, not heifers or cows. It’s frequently a disease of Angus cattle or Angus crosses – less common in other breeds despite protests of Angus fans. I would be surprised if 75,000 cattle died of this disease annually in the US – that may have been true 30 years ago. There are several labs working on genetic tests for this apparently heritable disease – NMSU being just one of them.

  5. Nancy Avatar

    Hmmm……. a number of cows, left behind in the fall, with winter coming on? How is that possible given the price of beef?

    Is this a result of a rancher who couldn’t count very well when the “cows came home” or a lazy rancher who just “chalked” the losses up to disease, weather or predators?

    Be interesting to know if this rancher receives a hefty sum each year when it comes to livestock losses (in the form of government subsidies)

    Too bad the “frozen beef” locker/cabin had not been discovered earlier. Probably could of provided some protein for a few less fortunate families, unable to fork out the bucks, given waht beef is going for these days.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      This happens all the time. I don’t mean frozen in a shed. I mean cattle and sheep left behind — not rounded up.

      They almost always die. There are no newspaper stories comparing it to an awful cow murder by a wolf. Most livestock operators do go back and check the easier parts of a grazing allotment if weather allows.

      1. Carl Avatar

        Ralph is it legal to graze cows in this Wilderness?

        1. Ken Cole Avatar

          It depends on the wilderness. There are grazing allotments in several wilderness areas around the country.

  6. WM Avatar

    Conundrum Hot Springs is maybe ten miles south of Aspen, in the Castle Creek drainage, with another 8 mile hike in. It is a wide flat mountain valley, not far from the infamous Maroon Bells (you’ve probably seen them on a calendar).

    Many years ago, as a young man, I saw my very first publicly displayed nubile, nude female form at that very hots springs. Well, maybe several, actually. Clothing was optional then, and appears it still is. I had no idea they ran cattle in that country, and don’t actually remember ever seeing any when I was there so long ago. It has been so long ago I don’t recall where the cabin is relative to the springs. I gather it is close enough to be a health concern.

    Bet there is no shortage of Aspenites with ideas how to cure the problem. Maybe just pass the hat one night at dinner in one of the expensive restaurants in that town, and I bet they could cover whatever costs are involved several times over, of even a helicopter to haul the carcasses out (can’t imagine anyone would object to a wilderness exception to do the work (except maybe a few folks on this forum). I think the White River National Forest Supervisor Office is still in Glenwood Springs, about 42 miles north of Aspen. They talk cows in that part of the forest, and used to be pretty practical folks, too.

    I’d rather see a few dead cows dangling from a rope sling below a helicopter with the theme from Mash playing in the background than somebody touching off explosives and having smelly rotting cow parts scattered in a hundred yard radius around the cabin, then have the maggots, flies and other bugs feeding on the smelly stuff well into the summer use season. YUK!

    If Hunter S. Thompson were still alive, he could even write a funny Gonzo journalism type short story about this.

    1. WM Avatar

      …and they could probably find some creative tax lawyer on vacation, to get the contributions for the removal work run through a charitable non-profit NGO and get a tax write-off for the donors. If John Denver were still alive he could even write a couple lyrics about dead cows in the cabin (to be sung to the tune of Rocky Mountain High).

  7. Linda Jo Hunter Avatar

    Well I guess they can’t just let the bears eat them because the bears would then be full of growth hormones and might get cancer. . .

  8. mtn mamma Avatar
    mtn mamma

    I think the cows must of gone into the cabin because they were afraid of all the big bad wolves running around. The wolves must have huffed & puffed but were unable to blow the cabin down. Damn wolfs causing more problems for ranchers;-)

    1. Savebears Avatar

      Yuppers Mtn, that answers the question with conviction!

      Oh my goodness, is summer here yet?!


  9. Richard Burris Avatar
    Richard Burris

    I wonder if wolves might have chased them in there then stood in the doorway so they couldn’t get out. Maybe the ranchers need to be compensated for their loss.

  10. Catbestland Avatar

    So who gets to pick up the bill for this clean-up. Let me guess…we do. And it wouldn’t supprise me if the rancher got reimbursed for the loss of his cattle.

  11. CodyCoyote Avatar

    Shouldn’t it be easy to develop a short list of whose frozen bovines these might be , and making it public or doing followup reportage? I would think the guest list at this exclusive mountain chateau could be discerned by checking the leasees of nearby Forest Service grazing allotments , then crosschecking the USDA or state of Colorado agriculture statistic ledgers for any “losses” in that same area, and outstanding claims for compensation , if any since there might be a certain embarassment factor in formally reporting wayward public grazing leviathans. It can’t be as uncertain as the Aspen Daily News makes it out to be. I would think it would be a short list. The cows had tags and , I presume, brands … which are nicely preserved by freezing.

    Can’t say I blame the cows , after being abandoned by their owners, for seeking out the hot springs and a nice log home. Cows may be dumb animals, but they a aren’t stupid. Their owners might be, though…

    Reminds me once again why we need to compile a Compendium of Excuses Public Lands Ranchers Use to Explain Missing or Deceased Livestock. It would be a hefty volume ( and probably missing one key causality : Lack of Adult Supervision ).

    Where I live in northwest Wyoming, a quintet of apex predators— a very large cat, a pair of large canines, and two kinds of bruins — get a lot of blame for missing cows. Granted, the Absaroka Range is rife with large wild carnivores who are graciously fed on occasion by absent herdsmen, and excuses for missing cows make local news and state/federal agriculture statistics reports.

    Down in southwest Colorado there is a very similar ” sister” mountain range, the San Juans , also grazed by herdsmen. Lacking any grizzlies, wolves, and having not many cougars, what does the ledger for missing San Juan cattle losses read like ?

  12. WM Avatar

    There is no technical or cost reason not to pry these frozen cows/calves loose from the cabin floor, bundle them up in a couple of slings and lift them out by helicopter to the nearest road and into a truck. A couple guys with pry bars, shovels and the blade end of a pick could pry them loose, I suspect. The chopper wouldn’t even have to drop a skid on the landscape, even though covered with snow, to tie on to the sling.

    They have already, it seems, wasted enough time “discussing” and meeting over what they should do.

    The political issuee would be whether this is a permissible activity with a helicopter in Wilderness. Seems to be no big exception because they already do human rescues here retrieving dead climber bodies.

    Helicopter & flight crew for a couple hours is probably less than $4,000. FS crew on the ground and disposal truck not much at all for a couple days work, and maybe scrub or spray down the cabin with a litte bleach. Bill it back to the livestock owner. If these were Gunnison NF cattle, how they got into that valley would mean they traveled some at higher elevations to get there, and the rancher should have taken care of his cows.

    And, per my post above, explosives doesn’t make much sense, and you don’t eliminate the public health/safety problem, with thousands of little blown up cow parts scattering the landscape, and the tissue breaking down to purtrecene and cadavorine, bacteria etc, making its way into the water, springs. Bears and other carnivores will show up for the feast, once they smell it.

    They make this sound like some huge strategic effort. Your freakin’ federal government at work.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      “There is no technical or cost reason not to pry these frozen cows/calves loose from the cabin floor, bundle them up in a couple of slings and lift them out by helicopter to the nearest road and into a truck”

      Heck, why go that far? Get a few able-bodied inmates from the local jail or prison, shuttle them in with a few overseers for a couple days (sure they would enjoy the “outing”) Peel the cows off the floor and move them aways into the forest and let the predators, big and small, have at the extra protein….. and then bill the rancher for All related expenses 🙂

    2. CodyCoyote Avatar

      …or merely run an ad in the Aspen Daily News. ” Free fresh frozen Colorado lean beef carcasses. Approximately 5000 pounds. (Shipping not included).

  13. Wolfy Avatar

    The rancher has probably already filed for compensation for ther lost cows and could probably care less; most likely they reported as lost to predators.

    1. WM Avatar


      ++The rancher has probably already filed for compensation for ther lost cows…++

      Under what programs,exactly?

      1. Nancy Avatar

        “Under what programs,exactly?”

        I believe WM, under subsidies, atleast in some states, there’s a catagory for livestock losses.

        1. WM Avatar


          Wolfy made the statement. Wolfy should answer.

          Of course, a subsidy is typically different from a “compensation for loss” program. In the latter, a specific loss, including causation, would usually have to be proven up to the satisfaction of the entity providing the compensation, within whatever guidelines they require.

          So, Wolfy, what is the answer?

          1. WM Avatar


            Regarding your link to the federal Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), above, I am nearly certain it would not have been in effect at the time of this incident, unless these cows died in September of last year, when it ended, and otherwise met the very narrow criteria. The program gets periodically reauthorized by Congress, but I don’t think there was anything in effect after the end of Sept. 2011. And if I understand the requirements, to qualify a “disaster event” must meet a certain definition, including designation as a federally recognized disaster. Since it can get below freezing and snow in nearly any month in CO, and stay that way at 11,000 feet for some time (in my recollection of some climbing triips I have been on trying to bag some of the famous CO Fourteen thousand foot peaks), it would seem statistically these stock would not qualify even if such a program were in effect, because this would be a statistically anticipated event of fairly regular frequency. I’m thinking these cows just got lost and were the victims of early snow. If one of the news articles is correct about where they were from, I am real curious how they got into the this drainage from the adjacent Gunnison NF, without going over some real high altitude ground.


            1. Nancy Avatar

              “The program gets periodically reauthorized by Congress, but I don’t think there was anything in effect after the end of Sept. 2011.\”

              Yeah but WM, if you wanted to spend time, I’m sure you will find the same kind of definations/allowlances here amongst livestock owners, who know how to take advantage of the many subsidies avaiable out there :


            2. WM Avatar


              I did a quick spot check for Pitkin County and Gunnison counties. In the last fifteen years there have been payouts for livestock “disaster” compensation in only two years for Pitkin and 4 years for Gunnison, and they were nominal sums. I would presume other mountain counties in that state where cattle are run would have similar histories.

              So, respectfully, I think your and Wolfy’s conclusion on this point is incorrect.


              You might also be interested to know the recipient of the largest Colorado “disaster” payments for livestock during this 15 year period was the Ute Mountain Tribe (4 Corners area in SW part of state) at $4.3 million. It was most probably drought related.

      2. Wolf Moderate Avatar
        Wolf Moderate

        This rancher is going to be billed for this I would bet. As far as compensation for livestock losses go, do you realize the paperwork involved in the process? It is incredibly difficult to prove that the loss was due to a wolf.

        Subsidies are usually there for a reason. Sure, sometimes lobbyists get them passed, but for the most part there’s a valid reason. If some ranchers/farmers weren’t given subsidies, wouldn’t they have to sell off parts of the ranch that are often times prime winter range for ungulates? I’d prefer subsidies over ranchettes any day.

        Where I live now, winter wheat is grown everywhere, therefore elk and deer are everywhere. Who pays for the loss of crops from wildlife on these PRIVATE lands? The landowners. I’m beginning to understand why ranchers hate elk (though I love them).

        1. Wolfy Avatar

          I’ve seen how compensation programs have been operated in Wyoming, Montana, and Michigan. And I’d say that the same programs are probably run the same way in Colorado. Understaffed state and federal offices must provide some surety that the claimant is not being fraudulent. I’ve seen in many cases where farmers, ranchers, livestock owners, deer farm operators, and hunting dog owners have been compensated for their losses on very little or scant evidence of predation or which predator was involved. In that, compensation program officials have, in the past, gave compensation to claimants without certainty of causation based on the inability to verify the predation in the field, threats of impending congressional probes, and/or the wish to keep claimants from taking matters into their own hands. I hold that these are well known facts among certain circles. When I said the rancher was probably already compensated, I was referring to the law of averages and body of evidence in many other cases.

          1. WM Avatar


            Unless there is a SPECIFIC government program to cover this loss, he won’t get any compensation for it. Again, what is the program in CO that would cover this guy’s loss for frozen cows?

  14. WM Avatar

    I really hope they don’t try explosives. Here is an old film clip of the OR Hiway Dept., years ago, trying to blow up a stinky dead whale (and my apologies to those who may find it offensive, and who probably shouldn’t open the link).

    There is no reason to think blowing up frozen cows would produce any better result than this.

  15. Nancy Avatar

    “I really hope they don’t try explosives”

    I agree WM. There are so many big and little critters that could benefit from a late spring feast/boost of protein (rotten as it is) if they’d just haul those dead cows out and away from the structure (and hot springs)

    But I’m sure it will be like the local Safeway and their policy on disposing of old fruits & vegetables.

    They pull them when they look less than appealing to the conxumer and then they end up in the dumpster out back (along with all the other daily trash) even though people like me, who raise chickens, could certainly put the “out of date” produce to good use.

    Their reasoning/fear? (Even though I’ve offered to pay a reasonable sum for the outdated produce) I might decide to come back in the store with the old produce and claim it was bad and demand a refund.


    So Forest Service, I’m sure, is gonna have to be “extremely careful” about how they dispose of these dead cows.

    Although the big question here is “who left the door open?”

  16. CodyCoyote Avatar

    The Friday evening NPR radio news April 20 had an interview with the District Ranger whom this frozen cow dilemma has fallen upon. He said the cows wandered over from the adjacent Ranger District ( the Gunnison ) quite a distance away , so they must know who the cows belonged to. The current plan is to burn the cabin down with the frozen cows in it, before snowmelt, to keep the emerging bears from scavenging the bovine bonanza and /or contaminating the hot springs.

    The cabin is…excuse me, was…a popular backcountry destination.

    No words on if the owner will have to pay the cleanup costs and replace the cabin , but you’d think so…

    All I can see in my twisted mind is a buncha Colorado redneck hillbillies up there having a blowtorch barbecue , drinking cheap Keystone beer to wash it down

  17. Art from Oregon Avatar
    Art from Oregon

    Certainly has to be other options than blowing up the cabin and cows.. reminds me of the beached whale in Oregon where this was tried that ended in not so good result–


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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