SILVER CITY, N.M. (KRQE) – After nearly a year of back and forth debate, the U.S. Forest Service says it will move forward with a plan to shoot feral cattle roaming in the Gila Wilderness. The operation is expected to begin next Thursday, with a closure taking affect days before aerial shooting is expected to start.

The aerial-based, lethal removal of feral cattle from the Gila National Forest has been on the USFS radar for more than a year due to the continued threat the animals pose to visitors and the environment. Forest officials believe there are roughly 150 head of cattle within the bounds of the wilderness area.

“The lethal removal of feral cattle from the Gila Wilderness is necessary to protect public safety, threatened and endangered species habitats, water quality, and the natural character of the Gila Wilderness,” Gila National Forest Supervisor Camille Howes said in a news release Thursday. “[Feral cattle] have been aggressive towards wilderness visitors, graze year-round, and trample stream banks and springs, causing erosion and sedimentation.”

The boundaries of the project area are described as the confluence Gila River and Turkey Creek; upstream along the Gila River to Alum Mountain, west to Miller Spring Cabin, and west down Turkey Creek to the confluence of the Gila River. Forest officials are planning to send snipers in helicopters over the area starting on Thursday, February 23.

The operation is expected to continue through Sunday, February 26. Visitors are asked to avoid the project area during the operation, with a closure beginning Monday, February 20.

Feral cattle have been grazing in the Gila for decades. Over the years, the forest officials have routinely removed the unbranded animals. However, the plan to use helicopters in the effort has raised concern amongst local cattle owners and ranches who believe its difficult to identify branded cattle from the air.

The Forest Service says all dispatched cattle will be left onsite to naturally decompose. Forest Service staff are also promising that “no carcasses are adjacent to or in any waterbody or spring, designated hiking trail, or known culturally sensitive area.”