NM Wild: New Mexicans Overwhelmingly Support Removal Of Feral Cattle From Gila Wilderness

A feral cow looks both ways before crossing N.M. 4 near the Truck Route in 2021. Photo by Carol A. Clark/ladailypost.com


SILVER CITY — The Gila National Forest (GNF) announced its decision Thursday to undertake the removal of feral (unbranded and unauthorized) cattle from the Gila Wilderness in partnership with USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wildlife Services (Wildlife Services). 

A group of conservation and sportsman/women organizations, consisting of the Center for Biological Diversity, Gila Resources Information Project, Heart of the Gila, New Mexico Wild (NM Wild), New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance, and WildEarth Guardians, that collectively represent thousands of New Mexicans, celebrated this action that will provide substantial benefits to wilderness values, water quality, wildlife and plants, and recreational use within the Gila Wilderness.

The Chiricahua Apache Nation Council also is in support and the Grant County Commission passed a Resolution Dec. 8, 2022 in support of continued GNF efforts to remove feral cattle from the Gila Wilderness. The Gila Wilderness is America’s first designated wilderness and one of the most valuable public land resources in the Southwestern United States.

The GNF’s recent public scoping period for this project also generated overwhelming public support for feral cattle removal from wilderness. Feral, unbranded cattle have been destroying fish and wildlife habitat, overgrazing native vegetation, trampling stream banks, and polluting critical water sources within the Gila Wilderness for decades. New Mexico Wild’s technical scoping comments on this project can be found here.

The GNF estimates that there are between 50-150 feral cattle remaining in the Gila Wilderness. There have been many unsuccessful attempts to round up this reproducing herd over the last 40 years. Lethal removal has been demonstrated to be necessary to successfully remove feral cattle from the Gila Wilderness due to the area’s remoteness, rugged topography, and the wildness of the feral cattle. Previous roundups have resulted in a greater than 50% mortality rate of captured feral cattle and pose safety risks to the wranglers and horses used during roundup operations. 

The GNF has full legal authority to remove unauthorized livestock from federal lands under its management. Last year, litigants, including the NM Cattle Growers Association, were denied their request for a temporary restraining order to stop the Wildlife Services feral cattle removal operation because the laws they cited did not actually preclude the GNF from taking action to manage federal lands; they could not show how the removal action caused them as plaintiffs harm; they were unlikely to prevail on the merits of the case; and the delay that would result from a restraining order would impede the GNF from undertaking its responsibility to manage and protect the lands and resources under its care. 

Years of roundup efforts and subsequent ecological monitoring have confirmed that the feral cows in the Gila Wilderness are unowned, unbranded, unauthorized animals that have been reproducing independently of any ranching operation. There are no ranches or active grazing allotments in close proximity to the area occupied by the feral cattle. 

Below, supporters of the removal of feral, unbranded, and unauthorized cattle from the Gila Wilderness have released statements detailing the importance of these efforts. 

“To the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches, the Gila Wilderness is considered our Northern Stronghold. From the blades of grass, the running waters, wild native species, to the Mountain Ranges is sacred unique country, Nde benah. The Gila Wilderness is an environment that is under constant threat and risk of degradation and pollution. We are in full support of the U.S. Forest Service decision for the immediate removal of the invasive, polluting, and a visually offensive species, feral cattle, by any means necessary, including shooting them. As Apaches, Yusen, the Creator, gifted us the responsibility to be a voice and to protect this land, Nde benah,” said Joe Saenz, Chiricahua Apache Nation Council Member, WolfHorse Outfitters, Chiricahua Apache National Foundation, Red Paint Powwow. 

“We applaud the Gila National Forest for making the hard decision to use the most effective tools for removing feral cattle from the Gila Wilderness. We can expect immediate results – clean water, a healthy river, and restored wildlife habitat. Bravo!,” said Todd Schulke, Co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity.

We are pleased to hear that the Gila National Forest will initiate immediate removal of feral cows from the Gila Wilderness in order to stop the severe ecological damage caused by these cattle. This is a critical first step in restoring the Gila’s riparian ecosystems from overgrazing, erosion, water quality degradation and habitat loss. We fully support the Gila National Forest’s proposal for humane and safe methods for removal of feral cattle from the Gila Wilderness,” said Allyson Siwik, Executive Director of the Gila Conservation Coalition.

“For decades, feral cows have been multiplying along the Gila River in the Gila Wilderness and have caused extensive shearing, erosion and degradation of the river banks. It is well past time to confront this ecological damage head on. We commend the Gila National Forest for taking decisive action to remove feral cows from the Gila, utilizing all available methods, including the lethal removal of problem cattle. We are looking forward to the restoration of the native grass diversity along the river, and with it, the return of deer, elk, and other wildlife that depend on a vibrant, healthy river,” said Patrice Mutchnick, Director, Heart of the Gila.

“Unowned and unmanaged cattle have already caused far too much damage to the Gila River and the forest,” said Donna Stevens, Executive Director of the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance. “We are very grateful that the feral cattle removal is proceeding so that the water and land can begin to heal.” 

“The unacceptable ecological destruction caused by feral cattle on this landscape is well-documented and has persisted for decades. All parties agree that the feral cattle do not belong here. These measures are absolutely needed to protect these critical riparian areas and the species dependent upon those areas and now is the time to finish the job,” Mark Allison, Executive Director of New Mexico Wild said. “The continued presence of unbranded cattle gives everyone a black eye. We appreciate the Gila National Forest’s leadership in taking this action and stand in strong support.” 

“The Gila Wilderness is a premiere destination for hunters and anglers in New Mexico. The wild, remote landscape provides breathtaking views and an unmatched backcountry experience. That experience should not be disrupted by invasive, feral cattle that damage pristine riparian areas and degrade critical wildlife habitat for species like Gila trout that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. Removing these animals will preserve the serenity of our first and wildest wilderness. This will benefit hunters and anglers as they present a Gila trout with a dry fly, seduce a Merriam’s gobbler with soft hen yelps or marvel at the sound of a bugling bull elk in September. The New Mexico Wildlife Federation commends the United States Forest Service for taking the necessary steps to protect this magnificent place,” said Jesse Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

“The problem of unauthorized feral cattle living and multiplying in the Gila Wilderness has gone on too long. I am grateful to the Gila National Forest for demonstrating leadership and working with the community to identify a resolution to this critical environmental issue,” said Madeleine Carey, Southwest Conservation Manager for WildEarth Guardians.


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