ALBUQUERQUE – A specialized team of wildlife managers has killed 19 wild cows in the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico as part of a contested project to rid the area of the unauthorized animals.
The three-day operation used a helicopter and high powered rifles to take out the cows in a rugged area where federal officials and environmentalists say the animals have been trampling stream banks, damaging habitat for other species and ruining water quality.
The U.S. Forest Service had estimated there were as many as 150 of the unauthorized cows in an area along the Gila River.
The agency said Tuesday that searches were conducted with the naked eye and through thermal imagery. The crew spotted significant numbers of elk, deer, javelina and even rabbits – but no additional cattle were found following the operation.
The carcasses will be left in the forest to decompose and the Forest Service plans to monitor the area.
Ranchers had opposed the project, saying rounding up the animals and removing them would have been a more humane way to clear them out of the wilderness. They accused the Forest Service of violating its own policies, but a federal judge denied their request to sideline the project, saying the cows were indeed feral and the Forest Service had the authority to kill them.
Gila Forest Supervisor Camille Howes said a combination of ground-based and aerial removal efforts since October 2021 have substantially reduced the feral cattle population.
“We are committed to removing these feral cattle as safely, efficiently, and humanely as possible to ensure a Gila Wilderness that is safe and resilient for generations to come,” she said in a statement.
She also said the Forest Service is committed to working with the ranching community and will coordinate with permittees to remove any branded cattle from areas where they're not supposed to be.
Ranchers have said fewer people are maintaining fences and the rural neighbors who used to help corral wayward cows are gone. Some have left the business because of worsening drought, making water scarce for cattle, and skyrocketing costs for feed and other supplies.
Increased use of public lands – including hunting and hiking – also has resulted in knocked-down fences, the ranchers said. Elk, too, are to blame for damaging fences meant to keep cows in check.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham even weighed in on the fight over the Gila's wild cows, saying last week that the federal government needed to do a better job of listening to residents.
The Forest Service on Tuesday reiterated its position that killing the cows was “the most efficient and humane way to deal with this issue.”