The US Forest Service’s plan to remove feral cattle from the Gila Wilderness in Southwestern New Mexico has drawn extensive opposition from local ranchers and social media commenters around the world. On Tuesday Feb. 28, the USFS confirmed that shooters “dispatched” 19 feral cattle during an operation authorized by a federal judge last week.

This ended the saga, for now, but we still we wanted to know exactly what is the deal with the feral cows and was there any other option besides just shooting them? Here’s what we discovered.

Why are there feral cows in the Gila?
According to the Forest Service, a rancher abandoned a small herd of cows around the Redstone Allotment, a permitted grazing area, in the mid-1970s. Since then they have multiplied and expanded their range to include riparian areas along streams critical to the Gila trout, a threatened species found no where else on Earth.

Why do they have to be removed?
Cattle are not native to the Gila. Their unchecked grazing has caused serious damage to riparian areas, tearing down creek banks and pulling up grasses that support other species. The cattle, living wild for over 40 years, have also developed a mean streak. Backpackers and campers have reported being charged by aggressive cattle.

“For decades, unbranded feral cattle have charged at backpackers and campers and harmed fish and wildlife habitat, native vegetation, and critical water sources within the Gila Wilderness. While the U.S. Forest Service has made many previous non-lethal removal attempts, the feral cattle have continued to injure cattle wranglers, and the dogs and horses involved in the operations,” says United States Senator Martin Heinrich.

“During the most recent public comment period on this issue, the thousands of comments received by the U.S. Forest Service have been overwhelmingly in support of the immediate removal of feral cattle from the Gila National Forest.”

“It’s clear there are no easy solutions to this problem. However, the removal of these unbranded, unowned cattle is necessary to address the public threat to users of the Gila National Forest, and to stop the severe ecological damage they cause to one of New Mexico’s most treasured public landscapes,” Heinrich added.

Have they tried non-lethal means?
Yes. According to the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, a nonprofit group tracking federal efforts to remove the cattle, 756 cattle have been removed since 1996. “Despite these efforts, a large population of feral cattle has remained in the wilderness. This limited success has resulted from the remote location and rugged topography of the Gila Wilderness and the wild nature of the cattle. In addition to being unsuccessful, live gathering operations result in high rates of death, injury, and stress to the cattle,” they report.

In 2021-22, a contractor removed 31 feral cattle alive from the Gila Wilderness. Unfortunately, an additional 39 feral cattle died or were injured and euthanized during gathering operations, according to federal data reviewed by NM Wild. The 2021 contract lasted 15 months and cost taxpayers $301,840. By comparison, the two-day aerial lethal removal operations conducted in 2022 resulted in the lethal removal of 65 feral cows and cost the taxpayers only $38,996.

93% of the 5,973 comments submitted during the recent scoping period that the Gila National Forest conducted for this project were supportive of lethal removal of the cattle, according to public data posted by NM Wild.

The Grant County Commission also passed a resolution in support of the project.

The New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association sued in Federal court to stop the recent efforts, but after a daylong hearing last week the federal judge overseeing the case found there was sufficient evidence of serious damage by the cattle and no reason to delay. “No one disputes that the Gila cattle need to be removed and are doing significant damage to the Gila Wilderness,” Judge Browning wrote in his decision.

So what is the plan now?
The USFS has contracted a company to shoot feral cattle using a helicopter as an aerial shooting platform. That operation was scheduled to occur between Thursday, Feb. 23 through Sunday, Feb. 26. All dispatched cattle will be left onsite to naturally decompose, but the Forest Service says staff will ensure no carcasses are adjacent to or in any waterbody or spring, designated hiking trail, or known culturally sensitive area.

“This has been a difficult decision, but the lethal removal of feral cattle from the Gila Wilderness is necessary to protect public safety, threatened and endangered species habitats, water quality, and the natural character of the Gila Wilderness,” said Camille Howes, Gila National Forest Supervisor. “The feral cattle in the Gila Wilderness have been aggressive towards wilderness visitors, graze year-round, and trample stream banks and springs, causing erosion and sedimentation. This action will help restore the wilderness character of the Gila Wilderness enjoyed by visitors from across the country.”