Cattle grazing is the greatest threat to the Greater Gila Ecosystem in New Mexico. Photo George Wuerthner 

Livestock grazing is the biggest scourge to Southwestern ecosystems. No matter where they are found, domestic livestock poses a significant threat to wildlife and ecosystem function.

Feral livestock currently roams the 558,065 Gila Wilderness, and the Gila National Forest is proposing to implement lethal and non-lethal removal of these “unauthorized” animals.

Ponderosa pine near Woodland Park, Gila Wilderness, New Mexico. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Gila Wilderness is the center of the 10-million-acre Greater Gila Ecosystem, one of the most intact landscapes in the Southwest.

WildEarth Guardians is leading an effort to garner greater protection for the area.

The Ecosystem is one of the most ecologically diverse regions of the United States where components of the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains, northern termination of the Sierra Madres with Representative elements of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts. This meeting of the ecosystems is one of the reasons the area has such diverse biodiversity.

It is home to endangered species, including the Mexican wolf, Gila trout, loach minnow, Chiricahua leopard frog, Gila woodpecker, Southwestern willow flycatcher, black bear, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and javelina.

The Gila has been the focus of conservation efforts for many of New Mexico’s most imperiled taxa; the Mexican spotted owl, the Mexican gray wolf, the Chiricahua leopard frog, Mexican garter snake, Gila trout, headwater chub, loach minnow, and spikedace.

In a recent paper on Rewilding the West, the Gila country was identified as having some of the greatest biodiversity in the West.

West Fork of the Gila River, Gila Wilderness, New Mexico. Photo George Wuerthner 

Livestock are particularly destructive in arid ecosystems because cattle tend to congregate near water sources like streams and springs, where they graze down riparian vegetation, trample stream banks, and compact soils, which reduce water infiltration and pollute waterways.

Riparian areas are particularly critical to native wildlife, with 70-80% of species dependent on these waterways at some point in their lifecycle.

Livestock also consumes vegetation that would otherwise support native wildlife, spreads weeds, and socially displace native herbivores like elk.  In the case of the Gila Ecosystem, the occasional depredation of domestic livestock is one of the main reasons endangered Mexican wolves are killed.

Cultural resources are particularly abundant in the Gila Wilderness, and cattle can trample or damage them.

While all livestock grazing on public lands is destructive of public values, feral livestock is even more egregious because no one is held accountable for the damage.

In a rare display of courage, the Wilderness District of the Gila National Forest is proposing to remove unbranded cattle from the Gila Wilderness.

I say “courage” because few federal agencies are willing to risk the ire of the cattle industry. Even in this case, where hundreds of feral cattle belonging to no one are roaming public lands, the New Mexico Cattle Growers are opposed to cattle round-ups or lethal removal.

The Cattle Growers object to any ariel control because “stray” private livestock (i.e., private cattle trespassing on federal lands) may be killed.

However, over 756 cattle have been removed from the Gila Wilderness in the past few years, and all but one were feral animals.

Gila Wilderness, New Mexico. Photo George Wuerthner 

In a press release last week, Gila National Forest Supervisor Camille Howe said that removal of unauthorized cattle remains necessary to protect the habitat of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, including federally listed threatened and endangered species.

“The unauthorized cattle in the Gila Wilderness trample stream banks and springs, causing erosion and sedimentation,” Howe said. “This proposal will help restore the wilderness character of the Gila Wilderness by removing non-native species and alleviating the damage caused by over-grazing.”

Due to the rugged nature of the Gila Wilderness, the FS proposes ariel gunning of feral animals during the winter when human visitation is lowest.

The FS says that it will avoid shooting cattle if they are near culturally sensitive areas, near trails, and water bodies.

Any cattle that are killed will be left to decompose.

The Forest Service is accepting comments.

Comments should include the following:

Name, address, phone number, and organization represented, if any.

Title of the project “Gila Wilderness Livestock Removal” on which the comment is being submitted.

Specific facts and supporting information for the responsible official to consider.

Commenter names, addresses, and email addresses will become part of the public record. Comments must be received or postmarked by January 9, 2023.

Written comments may be delivered in person or by mail to: Gila National Forest, Attn: Planning Program, 3005 E. Camino del Bosque, Silver City, NM 88061. Office hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday – Friday. Comments may also be submitted by email to: comments-southwestern-gila@usda.gov.

For additional information, contact the Forest Service at (575) 388-8201.

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

21 Responses to Gila NF Proposes Removal of Feral Cattle from Gila Wilderness

  1. David says:

    Thank you, George, for including information on how readers may become more engaged in and follow up on the important issues you discuss in your newsletter. I have asked a number of times for this type of information to be included in the newsletters. Hopefully, this will become a common practice. Comments have been sent to the GNF.
    Cheers,

  2. Jeff Hoffman says:

    Great work George, thanks! My letter is as follows in case anyone wants to use it as a template:

    I fully and enthusiastically support removal of all feral cattle from the Gila Wilderness as soon as possible and by any means necessary. The Greater Gila Ecosystem, of which the Gila Wilderness is a party, is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the U.S. Cattle are non-native and cause massive damage to ecosystems in the west, and even more so in drier ecosystems like the Gila Wilderness. In addition to doing great harm to riparian areas and the wildlife that depends on them, cattle displace native ungulates, unnaturally compact soil due to their great weight, eat vegetation that native animals need, and spread non-native vegetation. Feral cattle are additionally problematic because no one is held responsible for the great harms and damage that they do.

    For all these reasons, I urge you in the strongest terms to remove the feral cattle in the Gila Wilderness as soon as possible.

  3. Mike Higgins says:

    A step in the right direction, George, albeit a short one. What we need is for all of us who understand how destructive these critters are to our fragile environment to mount country-wide, planet-wide extremely loud and never-give-up pressure on the politicos/agencies to stop this abuse, immediately. There are a hell of a lot more of us than there are public-land grazers, so there is absolutely no reason we cannot put an end to this century-long preferential use!

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      What you suggest would be a good thing, but will ultimately fail with nothing else. The people in positions of power work for the rich & powerful, who are a small minority but who run roughshod over the rest of us and the natural environment. Numbers don’t matter except when it comes to voting, and they’ve got that so rigged that you can’t vote against any of these destructive activities. For some reason, ranchers have a greatly outsized influence considering that their money pales in comparison to other destructive industries like fossil fuels and mining, but politicians are very resistant to buck this industry (maybe because of the cowboy myth?).

      So while I support what you advocate, we also need other things. The best thing that individuals can do is to stop buying all the needless crap that supports destructive industries. In this instance, it means STOP EATING BEEF. That combined with a successful beef boycott campaign would go a long way toward fixing this problem. A large part of a beef boycott campaign should target kids, because kids like wolves (except maybe for brainwashed kids of ranchers). There is an old movie called The Legend of Lobo that has a wolf as the main character and characterizes the rancher as the bad guy, so let’s get this film into schools. Remember that the tuna/dolphin campaign got much if not most if its success from targeting kids, who bugged the hell out of their parents to stop buying tuna because doing so was “killing Flipper.”

      Just throwing out some ideas here. We’re getting our asses kicked on this issue (like on all other environmental issues), despite small victories like this one. We need to do something very different if we’re going to be successful.

      • Ida Lupine says:

        Agree – people have to realize their input can mean a lot, and their philosophy. At least cut down on beef. Somehow, we’ve all been brainwashed into believing that we ‘can have it all’.

        We really can’t, because something has to give. And usually, it is what we think doesn’t affect us directly, like the environment and wildlife.

        As an example, people used to dump all their refuse into the oceans – where I live, the water is still so contaminated with PCBs that warnings are posted that the fish cannot be eaten.

        All this said, I do feel bad that a poor animal, because of human neglect, will have to pay the ultimate price by being killed.

        • Ida Lupine says:

          ^^sorry, that should read ‘a certain place, the PCBs….etc.

          • Jeff Hoffman says:

            The physical root causes of ALL environmental and ecological problems are overpopulation and overconsumption, the latter including consuming things we should not be like beef (also trees, fossil fuels, etc.). If we don’t fix the overpopulation and overconsumption problems, we’ll never really fix any environmental or ecological problems.

            All things are finite. Siddhartha taught that 2,500 years ago, and any sane adult should be able to clearly see it. The idea of having one’s cake and eating it too is childish nonsense, rooted in the strong refusal to give up one’s lifestyle, even though that lifestyle is killing the planet and all the life here. The facts that all things are finite and that no one can have their cake and eat it too are fundamental lessons that all children should be taught, and any failure to do so is a complete failure of parenting, regardless of anything else.

            We all kill to eat, even vegans. Doesn’t matter whether we kill plants or animals, no life wants to die or be harmed, including plants. I have a strong sentimental urge regarding animals too, but killing to eat is the way of life on this planet. I probably couldn’t personally kill an animal to eat because of the way I was brought up (big city, animals are cute & cuddly, etc.) and my diet is largely vegetarian, but I have no opposition to other people killing to eat, so long as they eat what they kill and only kill natural prey animals (no whales or bears, for example). Additionally, cattle were bred to be killed and eaten, and they’re very ecologically destructive, so overall killing them is a good thing, despite the individual harm caused to the cattle.

        • Carol Ames says:

          I feel horrible that these exploited cattle, abandoned by ranchers, will be ruthlessly gunned down as if they, and not the cattle ranchers and beef-eating public, were “the enemy” of the environment. Like the American bison, before they were so savagely reduced to near extinction by humans (and are now being ranched and slaughtered for human profit and pleasure), these feral cattle are just trying to survive, it’s THEIR PLANET, TOO, and just because they are not “owned” or “endangered,” does not reduce the fact that they have as much inherent value as all other sentient living beings–even humans. Just saw an article, “Stanford Scientists Warn Civilization As We Know IT Will End in the Next Few Decades” in which Paul Ehrlich states: “Humanity is not sustainable. To maintain our lifestyle (yours and mine, basically) for the entire planet, you’d need five more Earths,” Ehrlich said. “Not clear where they’re gonna come from.” Feral animals, including “invasives,” are not to blame, they are not “the enemy.” I think these poor feral cattle ought to be humanely rounded up (at the expense of ranchers, or sympathetic donors)and removed to farm-animal sanctuaries. They are only trying to survive and deserve to be spared and not lethally punished to humanity’s greed and gluttony.

          • Jeff Hoffman says:

            This is a lot more involved that feeling empathy with or love for cattle. Cattle are not naturally-evolved animals, and do great harm by their mere existence. In arid areas like this one, they do even greater harm. There were no animals anything like cattle in this area before the colonizers arrived and put them there.

            This is not about blame, it’s about stopping substantial or even great ecological harms. Of course humans are ultimately to blame for all of this; humans created cattle by breeding them from naturally evolved ungulates, and humans place cattle in areas where large ungulates like this are not native and do great harm. But removal of the cattle is the ecological imperative here, not animal rights. Your empathy and even sympathy for the cattle is obviously great, but what about all the native plants and animals they kill (directly and indirectly) and the land and water they destroy? If you’re a conservationist, that’s where your focus should be.

  4. Sandy Lee says:

    Removal of feral cattle from Gila Wilderness is one of the best things that can be done to preserve national parks and wilderness areas all of them with Gila in particular. It is a good idea. One thing that would be good is if there was some way to take the slaughtered feral cattle where they could be used to help feed the hungry rather than becoming rotting carcasses. Not an easy task but it might be worth considering. But we need to take care of what we have left while it can be saved!

  5. Martha S Bibb says:

    Odd that the cattlemen’s association would not like arial gunning which is commonly used against our wildlife like wolves.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      They don’t dislike aerial gunning, they dislike their hooved locusts being killed.

      • Carol Ames says:

        If they are “Hooved locusts”, humanity is a plague on the Earth, or zoonotic pandemic.

        • Jeff Hoffman says:

          The human race fits the medical definition of being a cancerous tumor on the planet (though it could be the exact opposite, see my discussion with Mike Higgins below). And humans created domesticated animals like cattle, which did not evolve naturally, but were instead bred into existence by humans. To make this even worse, humans then graze cattle in unnatural conditions (fences, killing of native predators, etc.) and in areas where even the ungulates from whom cattle were originally bred would not exist, making the cattle even more destructive.

          So, as usual, the blame is ultimately with humans.

  6. Mike Sauber says:

    Slowly but surely, the general public is getting aware of the destructive nature of cattle and learning to question the claims made by the ranching industry. The more the general public knows, the more we can move forward with legislation. I just did an adult education class (2 days @ 3 hrs apiece) using the Diamond Bar story as a vehicle to show the destruction and inequities in our laws and actions (and INaction ) by agencies WE PAY to manage our lands. 35 more people in Silver City, NM have seen pictures and listened to the talk now. That is a big step. Whenever we see stories of renegade ranchers in the news, much more often there is a whole lot of informed people responding quite well. At a “meet the candidates” meeting years ago, I asked a two part question to our republican state rep “do you believe in the private property rights of the citizens of New Mexico?” of which he responded favorably. Then – “currently livestock are able to roam wherever they want and if we don’t want them on our private land, we need to fence them out. They’ve ruined my crops. Who you be willing to help change the laws to correct this?” After a few seconds pause he replied he would (although I never followed up on it since it would not be likely to pass anyway, but a roomful of people were informed of the inequities current. Write letters to the ed in local and state papers.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      Thanks for the work you do, we need more of that!

      We have a very long way to go here. Americans worship cowboys and love their beef. The Cliven Bundy standoff in Nevada and the subsequent problems caused by these criminals in Oregon show that the government is either not on our side, or at least that it’s not willing to take the necessary actions. We have to keep fighting, but it’s going to be a very long uphill battle.

      • Mike Higgins says:

        Let’s hope we have time, Jeff. At the rate we’re going in our determination to make this planet uninhabitable – for all life forms – I’m having serious doubts. Almost 63 years after I joined this battle, I’d hoped to see much more progress, at least enough to give me a glimmer of hope.

        • Jeff Hoffman says:

          At its heart, this is a battle for the hearts & minds of humans. I’ve come to realize that while we definitely need Band Aid measures to stop immediate destruction and killing, constantly fighting these Whack-A-Mole battles is a losing proposition. Humans need to evolve A LOT mentally and spiritually so that they value the natural world and all the life there more than they value things like unnecessary material goods, money, and mere conveniences. We should be focused on developing our wisdom and empathy to the greatest extent possible, and on expanding our consciousness. The best thing that humans can do regarding the physical/natural world is to leave it alone, except for restoration to make up for harms humans caused in the first place.

          The only idea I have for pushing or even easing people toward this evolution is education, in this case education about wildlife and ecology. All kids should spend some time in natural areas. Etc. Don’t know whether any of this would work, but mental and spiritual evolution of the human race is the only real solution to these problems.

          • Mike Higgins says:

            Well stated, Jeff, and as you can probably guess, I’m in total agreement. Time to dive in…once again!

  7. Mike Sauber says:

    Whenever the agencies make really bad decisions, I have a big roll of “crime scene tape” which could be used to drape across the front doors of the agency for media coverage purposes. An image like that will stick in the minds of viewers (agencies=legalized crime)

  8. Mark Jorgensen says:

    Kudos to the USFS employees willing to “Do the Right Thing” by removing ALL feral livestock from the Gila. What a travesty that the livestock industry leases grazing “rights” from our Public Lands for less than $1.50 per Animal Unit Month and gives little to nothing to us in return. Then, the gall to allow hundreds of cattle to go feral and leave for the taxpayers to clean up their mess. I oversaw a similar feral mess in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in CA. We spent $60,000 of
    Mostly privately donated funds to remove 150 head of cattle. Only one was branded. Six cattle operators tried to lay claim to all the cattle, tho none could prove such w/o brands or ear markings. The cattle devastate our wild land ecosystems and need to be removed immediately. I recommend live-capture by helicopter/netgun for all feasible stock and aerial dispatching with sharpshooters for all the rest. We caught 117 wild cattle alive and transported them to feedlots. I vote to cancel all grazing allotments on USFS and BLM. The programs are government subsidies to an industry that should not receive our handouts. Only 4% of America’s beef comes from public land grazing. It could all be eliminated and the price of beef wouldn’t go up one cent. I support the Gila NF removal project 100 %.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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