Feral Cattle in Gila Likely Spared – For Now

Court hearings pushed back in federal management lawsuit


The U.S. Forest Service determined it will not be using helicopters and guns to cull cattle loose in the Gila National Forest next year.

Federal officials said aerial operations were unnecessary, because of a smaller herd size, according to a Dec. 5 federal court filing for the District of New Mexico.

“Forest Service estimates that the number of remaining Gila Cattle is roughly in the neighborhood of 10-20 animals, with some degree of uncertainty outside that range due to the large area at issue and the evasive nature of the animals,” the filing stated. “As a result of this estimate, Federal Respondents do not intend to proceed with aerial lethal removal operations of the Gila Cattle in February 2024.”

Federal officials said any removals in 2024 would be ground-based roundups.

The context

Feral cows in the Gila have been a long-standing issue.

The U.S. Forest Service said it stemmed from action taken in the mid-1970s, after a rancher with a federal grazing permit declared bankruptcy and abandoned his cattle in the national forest.

Local and national nonprofit conservation organizations applauded efforts to remove the cattle, noting that their defecation and erosion in riparian environments, and potential for habitat destruction threaten federally-listed species living in the Gila Wilderness.

Over the years, 756 cattle were removed (dead or alive) from the Gila Wilderness, the Forest Service said in a 2022 press release. Of those cattle, only one cow captured in 1998 was branded. The rest did not have an ear tag, brand or other marker of ownership.

Federal officials said nearly half the feral cattle rounded up on the ground do not survive capture and removal, “due to stress and self-inflicted injury.”

In 2022, the National Forest Service said it killed 65 cattle during a two-day arial operation, but the practice ignited further criticism in 2023. The issue touched on emotionally-charged issues such as endangered species protections, animal cruelty and federal lands management. The fracas between the federal government, cattle organizations and conservation groups sparked national stories from a variety of outlets.

In February, a special team of federal officials sniped 19 cattle from a helicopter on public lands, after vocal objections from state cattle organizations.

Days before the scheduled operation, the New Mexico Cattle Grower’s Association, ranchers and the Humane Farming Association sued federal officials. In court filings, they called the practice “unlawful, cruel and environmentally harmful.”

The groups said federal officials failed to provide 75-days of notice, and raised concerns that wildfires destroyed fences that allowed branded cattle to mingle with the unowned, unbranded cattle.

Their lawyers disputed whether the cattle in the Gila were feral – a domesticated animal returned to a wild state.

Forest officials argued the federal district court was the wrong venue for the action.

A federal judge overruled the cattlemen’s injunction to stop the action, saying there was proper notification, and ruled the cows were feral animals.

Killing the unbranded cattle was necessary to protect hikers, waterways and habitats for threatened and endangered species, said Camille Howes, the supervisor at the Gila National Forest.

“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,” Howes said in a February statement.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham weighed in after the U.S. Forest Service shot the 19 cattle, saying she was disappointed in the “lack of meaningful, long-term engagement with New Mexico stakeholders on controversial matters like this one,” and likened it to processes such as prescribed burns.

The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association joined with others and sued to seek a permanent stop of the Forest Service shooting cattle from the air in the Gila Wilderness. The federal judge allowed the conservation nonprofit The Center for Biological Diversity to intervene in the lawsuit, which is still ongoing.

Parties involved in the lawsuit asked a federal judge to postpone a hearing scheduled for December until February.

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.