Hundreds of feral cattle roam freely in Gila National Forest, more than three million acres of remote and sprawling land in New Mexico with mountains, hot springs and untouched federally designated wilderness areas.
Conservationists, local ranchers and federal agencies all agree that the abundance of these unbranded cattle can threaten the environment. But there is longstanding discord about how to remove them.
Concern that federal agencies may be planning to shoot the cattle from a helicopter has drawn a sharp response from local lawmakers and ranchers, who are calling for what they believe is a less risky approach.
The Agriculture Department, which includes the U.S. Forest Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, confirmed that there were plans to remove the animals but did not specify the method to be used or its timing.
“The most efficient way to deal with this issue is with the responsible removal of the cattle,” said Suzanne Flory, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.
In a statement on Tuesday, Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said that the department was “conducting aerial surveillance this week to attempt to get location and numbers of feral cattle.”
Amid recent uncertainty about whether and when an aerial shooting would happen, dozens of state lawmakers signed a letter on Sunday urging the U.S. Forest Service to “suspend this action” in lieu of a safer and more humane option.
The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, a coalition of more than 1,000 ranchers that has previously challenged the Forest Service over cattle removal, maintains that shooting cattle from a helicopter would violate state and federal laws and could threaten privately owned cattle and other animals in the area.
Loren Patterson, the association’s president, said the feral cattle should continue to be gathered by wranglers and then sold — a slow process in the rugged terrain of the Gila Wilderness, the 500,000-acre portion of the forest where the cattle in question roam.
“Everybody wants the removal of the feral cattle,” Mr. Patterson said, noting that it would take time. “There’s not a quick fix.”
Over the last two decades, the Forest Service has intermittently gathered more than 600 unbranded cattle. The agency estimates that about 250 of them remain. Ms. Flory, the agency spokeswoman, said in a statement that the “unbranded and unauthorized cattle pose a significant threat to the environment, ecosystems and resources within the Gila National Forest.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based advocacy group that routinely files conservation lawsuits against federal agencies, supports the swift removal of the cattle, even if it’s fatal. Robin Silver, one of the founders of the group, described the wild cattle as “the biggest cause of endangerment of native wildlife in the West.” The cows ravage vegetation by rivers and streams and trample habitats, he added.
The group reached a settlement last August with the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over livestock grazing in the Gila National Forest. The agreement requires the Forest Service to monitor areas where grazing is not permitted at least twice a year and remove unauthorized livestock.
“The Forest Service isn’t calling in helicopters and using lethal removal, because you know, they’re trying to get people aggravated — there’s just no other way,” Mr. Silver said. “The destruction coming from these cows has to stop.”