Mammoth discovery puts Snowmass in spotlight |

Mammoth discovery puts Snowmass in spotlight

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – A hairy, prehistoric elephant brought the circus to Snowmass Village on Wednesday.

A Snowmass Water and Sanitation board meeting drew a packed crowd to a room at the Snowmass Club, where a selection of bones from a prehistoric mammoth were put on display for curious onlookers. Fascinated kids and adults, a class of schoolchildren, reporters and television news crews filed past the collection of giant, coffee-colored bones, recently unearthed from a reservoir excavation project just west of town.

The board has not yet decided what to do with the remains of the creature; another meeting is scheduled Monday, but the Denver Museum of Nature and Science appears to be the most likely repository for the bones. The museum has offered to handle excavation of the sensitive site, and take the bones to Denver where they can be preserved in a controlled atmosphere. The bones have not been fossilized – turned to stone, in other words – but remain soft and porous, in much the same shape they were in when the mammoth was encased in a peat bog some 10,000-plus years ago.

On Wednesday, Water and Sanitation employees were spraying the specimens on display with distilled water from time to time to keep them moist. For now, they are being stored in dark plastic and kept damp, in a cool place.

Yet to be determined is whether the animal is a Columbian mammoth or the much rarer woolly mammoth, according to Ian Miller, paleontologist and chairman of the museum’s Earth Sciences Department.

“There are no known woolly mammoths from Colorado yet,” he said.

The museum’s mammoth expert, Steve Holen, is expected to return to Denver from the Yukon on Saturday, and will then head to Snowmass Village if the museum takes on the project, Miller said. Holen will be able to determine which type of mammoth it is by examining its teeth and bone structure.

Either way, the discovery of a mammoth is a “significant scientific find,” said Bob Mutaw, cultural resources team leader for URS, the engineering firm involved in the reservoir project.

“We’ve never found something this complete at high elevation,” Miller agreed. The site is at about 8,800 feet.

Mutaw estimated 20 percent of the skeleton has been recovered thus far; he hopes a complete or nearly complete mammoth will be unearthed. The size of the bones indicate the animal was not full grown, Mutaw said.

If the museum is brought in, it will create a cast of the mammoth that the town can display, according to Miller.

The actual bones would still be accessible to the public. “They would be on display in our preparation lab – right away,” Miller said.

Carbon dating, in an attempt to determine the age of the bones, would be done, and it may be possible to obtain a DNA sample from them, he added.

The museum already has, in its collection, a prehistoric animal discovered near Snowmass Village – a 13-foot long predatory fish, an Xiphactinus, found in 1967. The town should have a cast of the big fish, as well, Miller said.

The town also received a letter of interest in handling the mammoth from Sunshine Services in Frederick, Colo., which offered to dig out the bones and produce an exhibit.

At present, the site where the bones were found is enclosed in a chain-link fence and guarded 24 hours a day. Concrete blankets protect the ground from freezing. The site and surrounding construction zone are not open to the public.

URS planned to use ground-penetrating radar within the 2,500-square-foot, fenced-in area on Wednesday in an attempt to locate other bones, and to search other areas of the exposed peat bog as well. The equipment detects objects that differ in density from the surrounding material.

Mutaw, however, said he doubts other animals will be discovered.

“Finding a fossil is always a one-in-a-million thing,” he said. “The real kicker would be to find this site was associated with prehistoric human occupation.”

That would mean finding a tool, for example, or some other evidence of human presence.

Time is of the essence in unearthing the mammoth, as winter is on the way, Mutaw noted. The work will take two to four weeks, he estimated. The dig site will be covered with a tent to help protect it from the elements.

“We feel a little bit of urgency – it is mid-October,” he said.

The bones were discovered a week ago, when a Gould Construction bulldozer operator noticed something unusual in the soil he was moving. He immediately stopped his machine and notified his supervisor.

Kit Hamby, Water and Sanitation District manager, came out to take a look first thing Friday morning.

“We all stood around a pile of bones, just mesmerized by what we were seeing,” he said.

After news of the discovery broke on Monday, the office phones started ringing off the hook, Hamby said.

“Since then, it has just been kind of a whirlwind,” he said. “There’s been a lot of interest in this.”

Wednesday, the heavy machinery continued to grind away at Ziegler Reservoir, working around the discovery zone. A layer of clay has been scraped from the drained reservoir, revealing the dark, loamy peat – in itself a treat to Miller, who examined what he estimated was 12,000-year-old plant material compressed into soft layers.

The clay prevented oxygen from seeping through to the peat layer, preserving the mammoth. Now that the clay has been stripped off, exposing the area to freezing and thawing, and drying out the earth, it’s important to find whatever the peat holds, according to Mutaw.

The Snowmass Village Water and Sanitation District purchased the reservoir property in 2005 for $3.5 million and plans to quadruple its capacity, at a cost of $6 million, to serve the resort’s future water-storage needs, according to Hamby. The old reservoir contained about 11 surface acres of water, he said.

The project is expected to be finished in November 2011. More than 45,000 cubic yards of material have been removed so far and the work will continue until late November this year, according to Hamby.

The work taking place now involves digging out layers of clay, peat and silt to create a stable base for a new, larger earthen dam. Removing the peat is what led to last week’s discovery, said John Sikora, project engineer with URS.

The unanswered question is what else is buried in surrounding peat that won’t be exposed.

“That’s the rub,” Mutaw said.

Whatever else is there, if anything is there, will likely be locked in the earth forever once the new reservoir is built.

“Or preserved forever, depending on how you look at it,” Sikora said.

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