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Lost rancher on Stoner Mesa found by helicopter

This search and rescue map shows various search routes for a missing rancher on Stoner Mesa. The yellow line is the search pattern for a Flight for Life helicopter that spotted the woman the next day. (Courtesy Dolores County Search and Rescue)
Woman searching for livestock had unplanned night in backcountry

A rancher who became lost in the San Juan National Forest looking for missing cows spent an unexpected night in the backcountry last week.

The woman was located by helicopter the next day after a rescue effort was launched by local emergency responders and family members.

On Dec. 19, she was traveling on Stoner Mesa by horseback with two dogs looking for livestock, said Keith Keesling, operations captain for Dolores County Search and Rescue.

She lost her bearings and was reported missing by her husband that night when she did not return home when expected.

Rescue crews from Dolores County, West Fork Volunteer Fire Department, Dolores County Sheriff’s Office and Pleasant View Fire organized a search effort that night.

The lost rancher attempted to use her cellphone, but service in that area was spotty to nonexistent, Keesling said. Cell tower data was analyzed to assist the search.

Rescuers on snowmobiles found her tracks but could not follow them through the dense forest. The search was called off until morning.

A Flight for Life Helicopter spotted her the next morning on a flyover about 9 a.m., Keesling said.

“She had a cold night, I’m sure. Four cows and the dogs were with her,” he said. “She indicated to the helicopter that she was all right and was heading in the right direction.”

She spent the night above 9,000 feet near Sunshine and Aspen reservoirs. Low temperatures were the single digits that night.

“You could call it a two-dog night,” Keesling said, referring to the expression for measuring low nighttime temperatures in the backcountry.

The following day, the woman’s brother searched by horseback and met her that afternoon by following her tracks in the snow. The woman’s identity was not released.

About 18 people were involved in the search. Search and rescue costs are covered by county, state, and federal resources, and the missing person was not charged, Keesling said.

“It all turned out, it was an exemplary effort by rescuers and family members,” he said.

The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center assists with search and rescue efforts in the lower 48 states and provided technical information during the search for the missing rancher.