The Gila National Forest has a cow problem.
The U.S. Forest Service estimates 50 to 250 feral cows roam the national forest, grazing near its waters and leaving a wake of damage. The U.S. Forest Service has a plan to remove the cows and, although it gained unanimous support from the Grant County Board of Commissioners in December, it is not without controversy. And the public comment period for the plan ends Monday.
Feral cattle have inhabited the forest since the 1970s, and the Forest Service began its efforts to remove them in the 1990s. In that time, it says it has removed more than 700 cattle. But the remaining cattle have continued to over-graze, trample stream banks and reproduce.
“This is a real black eye for the Forest Service as well as the county,” Center for Biological Diversity co-founder Todd Schulke said. “The first thing you see when you go down to the river where these cattle are is that it’s completely denuded.”
The Forest Service used lethal methods to remove 65 cattle in one operation last February. It said this was one of its most successful efforts and further use of lethal methods could soon bring the problem to a close.
Schulke said his organization supports this approach because the alternative, conducting roundups, still leads to many euthanizations due to stress and injury. “In a helicopter, they can find them in extremely rough conditions that are more difficult for cowboys,” he said.
The proposed plan would make both lethal and non-lethal methods available to remove the remaining population of unbranded cattle. The operations would likely take place in February, over two seven-day periods.
The Forest Service said it will issue an area closure to keep the public out of danger and would not authorize grazing in the area. It opened the public comment period in November.
The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association disagrees with the plan to use lethal on-site measures and said as much in the comments it submitted Thursday to the Gila National Forest.
“We think the whole plan should be scrapped,” NMCGA President Loren Patterson said.
He said that because the carcasses are left in place, the meat is wasted as opposed to the cattle going to auction, and the practice poses a risk of giving predators a taste for cattle.
Patterson advocated for a longer public comment period and a more thorough impact study, along with a reinstatement of grazing allotments to ranchers, who he said would be on the ground to remove unauthorized cattle. He also voiced concern that the Forest Service could kill branded cattle that wander into the space.
Forest Service spokesperson Maribeth Pecotte said the public comment is part of the scoping by the National Environmental Policy Act process, which requires government officials to follow procedures in assessing the impact of projects they take on. She also said that in the decades of past removals, the Forest Service is only aware of one branded cow that was removed.
She added that a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service consultation reported that while predators and scavengers move quickly on the meat of the cattle that are shot, there is no proof that they become more likely to seek out cattle.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said the Forest Service was only aware of one branded cow being shot. The story should have said the Forest Service was only aware of one branded cow being removed. This story has been updated.