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Welcome to the Wild West: In New Mexico, Hikers Are Getting Attacked by Cows

In New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, you’re probably more likely to get attacked by a cow than a bear. Over the past few decades, several hikers have reported getting charged by aggressive feral cattle. Now, the U.S. Forest Service is finally going to do something about it. (Spoiler alert: it involves helicopter-borne snipers.)

The cows first became an issue back in the 1970s. For unknown reasons, a rancher abandoned about 50 of his stock in the national forest. The cows quickly went wild and adapted to the landscape, growing tougher by the generation. Over the past few decades, the feral animals have become a major problem, both for human beings and for the environment. 

“The feral cattle in the Gila Wilderness have been aggressive towards wilderness visitors, graze year-round, and trample stream banks and springs,” the USFS explained in a recent press release. Last month, officials announced a plan to cull the herd once and for all. 

An unattended cow roaming northern New Mexico. Image by Bill Chizek/Getty

Because the terrain of the Gila National Forest is so rough and the cows are so hardy, the USFS decided that the best way to take them out was via helicopter. So, it hired a chopper to fly shooters — essentially specialized snipers armed with high-powered rifles — over the Gila Wilderness. When the operation was complete, the USFS reported that 19 cows had been killed over the three-day mission. The carcasses were left on the landscape to decompose naturally and provide food for native predators.

Some locals complained that the casualty count was far lower than expected. While the USFS reported that they saw no other cattle during the fly-over, they’d previously estimated 150 head of cattle on the landscape. So, either the original estimate was off, or the feral cows have done an exceptional job of evading the authorities.

“Reporting 19 head killed over several days of flight just shows that the United States Forest Service has absolutely no idea about the actual herd numbers in the wilderness,” said Loren Patterson, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, in a recent interview with agricultural news site The Fence Post. Many local ranchers have been opposed to the culling plan, expressing fear that the USFS could take out their cows by accident.

The USFS has not yet announced whether it will make another attempt to look for or euthanize any remaining feral cattle. So, if you go hiking in the Gila any time soon, keep an eye out for cows. If you spot them, let the USFS know—and be sure to keep your distance. 

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