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Wild river, wild cattle, tough calls

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We had a problem with cattle running wild on the Gila River, but fortunately, it’s all over. The final cow was killed last week. Or was it?
The wild cattle saga has been going on since the 1970s, and although this round is over, it may not be the end. The Forest Service hired a contractor with a helicopter and high-tech thermal sensors to shoot wild cows, and they did kill 19 of them, leaving the bodies to rot.
But even Gila National Forest officials aren’t sure it’s over. There might be a few cows left for another season. Between helicopter shootings in 2022 and 2023 and a cattle roundup during 2021 and 2022, 153 cows are gone.
But is that all? The original number of cows was a guess, and how many are left is another guess.
I’ve been reading the easy solutions to this problem for many years. This is cow country. Just send in cowboys to round them up and drive them out to the road.
Yeah, right. These cows are not actually cows in the normal sense. They are the great grandchildren (or farther back) of cows that broke free in the 1970s. Like wild boars in Texas, they may have descended from domesticated animals, but after almost 50 years they don’t act domesticated. Herding them is kind of like rounding up elk.
For those who know the Gila River, the cows hang out in a large area centered on where the Sapillo joins the Gila. You can guess how hard it would be to herd wild cows upstream 9 to 12 miles through 50 or more river crossings.
But you don’t have to guess. If you go to the Gila National Forest website, you can read the documents from the lawsuit cattlemen fi led to stop helicopter shooting. You’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know.
The key fact is that a roundup in 2021-22 cost $301,840 to take out 69 cows, although more than half of them died along the way. A helicopter shooting in 2022 took out 65 cows at a cost of $38,996. The bill for this year’s shooting of 19 cows isn’t in yet.
Still, shooting from a helicopter doesn’t sound nice. Yes, scavengers will eventually dispose of the carcasses, but if you take 19 dead cows weighing about 1400 pounds each — bulls are heavier — that’s more than 25,000 pounds. Carnivores and scavengers will have a temporary feast that will be far from natural.
What’s the solution? Well, we could just leave them. The wilderness is for wild animals, and these cows fit the description. But nobody is arguing for that or denying that feral cows damage the river.
The cows may be wild, but they’re not natural. Ranchers and rangers are arguing about how to get them out, not whether they should be there.
One proposed solution is to let hunters kill them and haul the meat out. Hunters are used to hauling deer and elk meat with horses or ATVs.
But getting meat from deep in the Gila Wilderness is different from getting it from a National Forest crisscrossed by roads. These cows are a long way from anywhere, and ATVs can’t be used in the wilderness.
There’s also the question of sport. Are there really lots of hunters who want to hike many miles into the wilderness to shoot Bossy and haul out thousands of pounds of meat? Beef is cheaper at Food Basket.
My idea was to leverage the helicopters. If you can’t get the cows out to the butchers, haul the butchers out the cows. When a cow is shot, lower a butcher in a sling to cut the cow up and send meat back up. I proposed this solution to the Forest Service during the comment period, but they didn’t get back to me. Maybe they couldn’t find enough Green Beret butchers. One of the complaints about shooting cows from helicopters is that it’s cruel. I don’t take that seriously. Dragging wild cows up the river doesn’t sound pleasant for man or beast. And the slaughterhouse is a place — well, beef tastes a lot better if you don’t ask too many questions about how it gets to your table. If the cows are going to die and be eaten anyway, shooting sounds kinder than sending them a long, hard way to a slaughterhouse.
Nobody wants to think about rotting cow carcasses, but I doubt the Daily Press will send a photographer to take a picture of them, even though the Forest Service provides the GPS coordinates. What we aren’t going to find is a pleasant or easy solution. There is no happy ending for wild cows

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Bruce McKinney

Bruce McKinney is a Silver City business owner, close observer of local government and occasional troublemaker. In his column, which appears every other Wednesday, he tries to address big questions from a local perspective. Send comments and ideas to
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