ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- New Mexico's governor has stepped into the fight over how federal land managers are eradicating wild cows in the Gila Wilderness.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement Friday saying she was disappointed by what she described as the U.S. Forest Service's lack of meaningful, long-term engagement with stakeholders on a controversial issue.
The Forest Service is currently conducting an aerial shooting operation to kill as many as 150 "unauthorized" cows in a vast area of steep rugged valleys and mountainsides blanketed with trees.
The operation has been the source of legal wrangling and protests by the agricultural community in southwestern New Mexico.
Federal officials and environmentalists contend the animals are trampling stream banks and damaging habitat for other species. Ranchers argue the operation amounts to animal cruelty and that the cows could have been rounded up and removed instead of letting their carcasses rot in the wilderness.
A federal judge cleared the way for the operation Wednesday when he denied a request by ranchers for a delay.
The governor said she has shared her concerns with federal officials and asked them to do better.
"Whether debating prescribed burns or wildlife management, it is imperative that New Mexicans who live and work in and near impacted areas are allowed the time to be meaningfully involved in these decisions," Lujan Grisham said. "When that does not occur, it fosters a continued climate of distrust and hinders progress toward our shared goals of a healthy environment and a thriving rural economy."
"As it stands, they are failing New Mexicans," she said.
The Forest Service said Friday it shares the governor's values when it comes to conservation and public engagement and will remain committed to transparency.
Agency spokesperson Ivan Diego Knudsen said there have been extensive discussions with stakeholders over the past several years and the agency has tried to address concerns. He said those discussions with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, the New Mexico Livestock Board and the ranching community will continue.
"Our hope is to work with cattle producers so that we can achieve more effective operations than have occurred in the past," Knudsen said in a statement.
The agency said it supports "an integrated approach that may include both gathers and aerial removals to best meet our shared vision" for the wilderness area.
Ranchers in court documents had argued that the agency was skipping the steps of rounding up the cattle and impounding them, opting instead for the last resort of gunning them down. Their attorney said in court that the operation had the potential to result in an estimated 65 tons (59 metric tons) of dead animals being left in the wilderness for months until they decompose or are eaten by scavengers.
The Gila National Forest issued its final decision to gun down the wayward cattle last week amid pressure from environmental groups that have raised concerns about unchecked grazing in sensitive areas.
Todd Schulke, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said his group believes the Forest Service has done its best to address the damage done by feral cattle in the least impactful way possible.
The cattle in question are the descendants of cows that legally grazed the area in the 1970s before the owner went out of business. Federal officials have made several attempts over the last couple of decades to remove the animals, including a similar shooting operation in 2022 that took out 65 cows in two days.
The Forest Service said it would release results early next week once the operation is concluded.