This week, federal agents will gun down up to 150 feral cattle in a remote part of New Mexico. According to a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) press release, the lethal action will take place within the boundaries of the Gila Wilderness. The area was closed to the public on Monday, February 20. The aerial gunning operation will begin on February 23 and continue through February 26.
“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 Gila National Forest Supervisor Camille Howes. “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.”
The USFS estimates that there are approximately 150 unbranded cattle in the wilderness area. They may have strayed into the area through broken enclosures in recent years. The dispatched cattle will be left to decompose. The USFS says its staff will ensure carcasses are kept away from heavily-visited trails as well as waterbodies, springs, and culturally sensitive areas.
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The move does not come without controversy. Last year, at the behest of cattle ranchers, 31 New Mexico lawmakers sent a letter to the USFS asking the agency to reconsider their course of action. Some ranchers say that killing the cattle could damage the water quality and worry about the precedent it will set for vacant rangelands elsewhere in the West. In contrast, some environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, are lauding the decision.
This is not the first time lethal action was taken against feral cattle in the Gila Wilderness. In 2022, federal officials dispatched 65 cattle in the area via helicopter.