Woolly mammoth bones found near Snowmass Village | SummitDaily.com

Woolly mammoth bones found near Snowmass Village

the aspen times
Chad Abraham The Aspen Times

The bones of a woolly mammoth estimated to be 10,000 years old were found outside Snowmass Village Thursday evening, a discovery one official heralded as “one of the most significant finds in Colorado.”

The operator of a bulldozer working on a reservoir project noticed what turned out to be rib bones sticking out of the ground. Staff from the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District have since removed and cleaned scores of well-preserved bones, including a femur, the end of a tusk and parts of the mandible. Officials from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science have also examined the bones and the site.

The district has been in contact with paleontologists who have said the find is “something very unique,” said Kit Hamby, manager of Snowmass Water and Sanitation.

“These are actual bones, which is what differentiates them from fossilized dinosaur bones,” he said. “Paleontologists we have spoken with told us it is one of the most significant finds in” the state.

Some of the bones, which Hamby described as “pretty amazing,” may be on display Wednesday when the district board meets (see sidebar).

The woolly mammoth was found in 4 1/2 feet of “pure peat,” according to Kent Olson, a superintendent for Gould Construction, a contractor on the site. Scientists say peat, which is partly decayed, moisture-absorbing plant matter, can help preserve mammalian tissue for thousands of years without fossilizing bone.

“This is a really exciting time for Snowmass Village and everyone in Pitkin County,” Mayor Bill Boineau said. “Hell, there’s some real history here!”

Mammoths were common on the Colorado Plateau until about 8,000 years ago, according to the Page Paleontology Science Center, which studies paleontological discoveries on the plateau. They are believed to have gone extinct amid changing weather patterns and other factors.

But finding the remains at such a high elevation is “fairly rare,” said Larry Agenbroad, Ph.D. He is director of the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs in South Dakota and professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University.

“They do get that high occasionally,” he said, mentioning a mammoth found in Huntington, Utah, at a similar elevation.

Agenbroad said the Denver scientists likely used preservative agents on the bones. Efforts to reach officials from the museum were unsuccessful.

The find could put Snowmass Village on the map as an area where more discoveries are possible, Boineau said.

“It could really be a draw for the Pitkin County and Snowmass Village area,” he said.

Boineau said removing all of the bones could take some time. He expressed concern about possibly looting at the site and said he was hopeful that police officers and private security guards will make efforts to secure the location. The Aspen Times is not disclosing the mammoth’s location.

Olson said 24-hour security is now in place around the 11 1/2-acre project, and the site of the bones, about 100 square feet, has been flagged to protect it. There are also plans to construct a chain-link fence around the site this week.

Pitkin County Commissioner Jack Hatfield echoed the security concerns, but also said that the overall water-supply project was too critical to be halted for long. Olson said work temporarily stopped after the discovery but has since resumed.

Hatfield said he was stunned upon learning the news.

“We’re aware that the site is of archaeological significance,” he said. “I really hope the site can be preserved as an important archaeological find.”

At the same time, he puts just as much “weight into hoping that it doesn’t interfere with development of the reservoir.” He called the project an enormously (one might say mammothly) important “amenity for the sustainability of Snowmass Village.”

Enlarging the reservoir will take another 18 months to two years, Hamby said. The project, aimed at improving water storage and snow-melt infrastructure, involves the removal of tons of rock and sediment.

“This is going to be an exciting time for Snowmass Village,” Boineau said. “We’re going to have to get a handle on it and not let people disturb it.”

Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is cabraham@aspentimes.com.

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