A fight is brewing once again over feral cattle living in the wilderness of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is planning to kill potentially dozens of wild cattle in the sprawling Gila Wilderness of over half a million acres. The USFS closed the Gila to visitors on Monday, and beginning Thursday, it plans to hunt cattle in the rugged Gila terrain by helicopter for four days.
The USFS has conducted an operation like this before; last year the federal government sent a team to hunt cattle via helicopter. The operation killed 65 wild cattle, riling local landowners, ranching interests, and state lawmakers. The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, which represents ranchers across the state, unsuccessfully sued last year to stop the culling before it took place. In December, the New Mexico Livestock Board denounced the operation as an act of animal cruelty.
“We know that those animals don’t need to be in there,” NMCGA President Loren Patterson said last month. “We also believe that this aerial gunning program, just like last year, will just be a population control, but doesn’t solve the problems associated with those feral cattle. We want those animals removed in a humane way.”
Cattle carcasses found after last year’s operation were sometimes found with broken limbs, or their entrails hanging out. A few carcasses were found in the national forest’s rivers, raising concerns about water quality. The government removed the carcasses from the river after they were reported.
The Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are under pressure from environmental groups to remove the cattle from the Gila National Forest. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and other activist groups say the livestock damage habitats of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. The environmentalists have pushed the federal government through legal challenges to adopt more aggressive plans to remove the feral cattle.
Over more than two decades, the federal government held nine roundups and removed a total of 211 cattle from the Gila. The USFS estimates that 50 to 150 feral cattle remain in the wilderness area, and ranching interests maintain that the remaining cattle should be removed through herding, not bullets.
The gathering operations are dangerous and pose a risk to the people and animals involved, according to the Forest Service. The difficulty and ineffectiveness in herding cattle in the Gila in part prompted the government to opt for aerial shoots after a 2020 lawsuit by the CBD.
“The remote location, the steep, difficult terrain, vast territory, and access restricted to foot or horse due to the designated Wilderness status are limiting factors, along with the wild, uncooperative nature of the feral cattle themselves,” USFS spokesman Ivan Knudsen told The Daily Wire in an email.
“The Gila Wilderness feral cattle do not behave like domesticated cattle, but tend to scatter more like deer; and when captured, tend to thrash and flail, which makes roundup and capture difficult and dangerous for the contracted cowboys, their horses and dogs. Approximately half of the cattle captured using ground-based roundups die or must be euthanized due to stress or self-inflicted injury during capture,” Knudsen said.
Sarah Falen, who runs Wild West Advocacy and has been working with opponents of the USFS shooting operations, said that much of the government’s problem in herding the cattle is its choice of contractors. Falen told The Daily Wire that the government hired contractors who specialized in gathering feral horses, not cattle. In addition, the roundups were held sporadically, allowing the feral cattle to breed and replace much of their numbers lost to herding.
While the roundups are time intensive, ranchers and critics say the operations are preferable to sniping cattle from a helicopter – for the welfare of the livestock and a host of other reasons that concern ranchers in the surrounding area.
One of the foremost concerns is habituating the Mexican gray wolves that hunt and scavenge the Gila to the taste of cattle. In a decision memo posted last week, the USFS recognized such concerns but said it “does not have any evidence that wolf scavenging on the cattle carcasses has any known effect on the wolf depredation rates on livestock.”
Falen pointed to a USFWS finding that said two Mexican gray wolves were seen last year feeding on the carcasses of the dead cattle. The Forest Service cited the USFWS in its memo: “Last year, after the Forest Service lethally removed feral cattle in the Gila Wilderness Area, two wolves were attracted to the carcasses, stayed in the area for several months, then moved back into their normal areas without preying on live cattle.”
Mexican gray wolves, a species protected under the Endangered Species Act, threaten livestock in some areas the wolves’ territory runs across ranch land, and ranchers’ concerns about the predators are increasing as the federal government rebuilds wolf populations. In Arizona, the state is paying ranchers to remove carcasses of dead livestock beyond the reach of wolves in the Gila to limit the potential for conflict. In 2018, the USFS revoked the grazing permit from a New Mexico rancher who killed a Mexican gray wolf in the Apache National Forest, located northwest of the Gila.
Ranchers “have problems with [wolves] all the time,” Falen told The Daily Wire. “I actually work on a Mexican wolf project and some of the ranchers in that area say that in some years, they think that almost as much as 50% of their calf crop is killed by wolves.”
The deaths can be difficult to tally, she said. The government often contests ranchers’ claims that wolves killed a calf. Officials assume that a calf found eaten by wolves may have died by other causes, and the wolves’ feeding took place later.
Ranchers are also concerned that a sniper may shoot a stray animal that belongs to a nearby ranch by mistake. The USFS has dismissed those concerns, saying that only one branded cow has been removed from the Gila since removal operations began.
The feral cattle that now inhabit the Gila are the descendants of a herd once legally run on federal land under a grazing permit. Environmentalists have continued to emphasize the threat the agricultural industry poses to sensitive habitats where endangered species congregate and live.
The federal government has emphasized the dangers the feral cattle pose to endangered species, as well. In its decision memo, the USFS posted several pictures of what it said was sensitive habitat destroyed by feral cattle.
“The presence of feral cattle within the Gila Wilderness has resulted in resource damage, especially to riparian areas where cattle congregate during warmer drier months,” the USFS memo says. “In recent years, Forest staff have documented occurrences of resource impacts from feral cattle, such as severe over grazing.”
Falen said the photos showed damage that could have been from cattle, but also could have been from elk or deer. The government, by blaming at most 150 animals for habitat damage in a 560,000-acre wilderness, is exaggerating the toll the wild cattle are taking on the area, she said.