February 17, 2023

Plan to shoot Gila feral cattle draws ire from some in state House

Center for Biological Diversity

The U.S. Forest Service is once again planning to remove the feral cattle from the Gila Wilderness by shooting them from helicopters. The aerial shooting will occur Feb. 23 through Feb. 26.

The plans to remove cattle from the Gila Wilderness using both lethal and non-lethal methods come as the growing herd of feral cattle has damaged riparian ecosystems in the wilderness area.

“Unowned and unmanaged cattle have already caused far too much damage to the Gila River and the forest,” said Donna Stevens, Executive Director of the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance, in a press release. “We are very grateful that the feral cattle removal is proceeding so that the water and land can begin to heal.”

A similar removal of feral cattle occurred last year. 

Todd Schulke, co-founder of Center for Biological Diversity, said he believes this year’s effort will be more successful at making a dent in the feral cow population than last year’s shooting.

He explained that last year the contractors spent less than two days flying over the Gila and shooting cattle. This year, Schulke said, the contractors could be out for more than a week. 

“They should be able to make a huge dent in the remaining herd,” he said.

He said the ultimate goal of the cattle shooting is to create cleaner water and healthier ecosystems.

Last year’s shooting of cattle also proved to be a more cost-effective way of reducing the population in a short period of time, he said. While opponents to the aerial shooting say that the cattle can be rounded up and auctioned off, Schulke said that is an expensive process that would cost more than the beef is worth.

But the proposal has also drawn backlash from lawmakers as well as cattle ranchers. 

On Wednesday, State Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, requested that the House of Representatives send a letter to the U.S. Forest Service opposing the lethal removal of feral cattle.

The lethal methods involve having people in helicopters shoot the cattle from the air, which opponents say is cruel and robs the state of the proceeds that could be generated from the sale of the cattle. 

Ezzell described the cattle that were shot last year during a similar removal effort. 

“It sickens me that these cattle that were shot, not all of them were killed. They suffered. They suffered. Those carcasses were left to rot on the floor of that forest,” she said.

Ezzell said she has seen photographs of cattle that had their legs shot out from under them or were shot in the eyes. She said cows were killed and their orphaned calves were left out as food for predators.

The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association also opposes the shooting of cattle, which the organization describes as inhumane. In a press release, the organization called for pens, fencing and roads in the wilderness to allow the cattle to be rounded up in “vast and rugged topography.” This would allow for feed to be placed in the pens and, once the feral cattle are comfortable entering them, the gates would be closed behind them.

“It has been duly noted that proper compensation for such work has been sorely undervalued and the obstacles for such work to be accomplished were too strenuous under the requirements of a Wilderness Area, where motorized vehicles and equipment requiring fuel or electric power are strictly prohibited,” the press release states. “Contracted cowboys are further regulated for the miles traveled on their horses used to complete their task, only able to pack in and feed their equine counterparts weed seed free hay.”

The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association has been in talks with the U.S. Forest Service for more than a year and even filed a lawsuit last year that resulted in a settlement.

In the press release, Loren Patterson, the organization’s president, described the aerial shooting as a “Band-aid” solution that will not result in long-term population control.

The Forest Service initiated a public comment period in November that closed in January regarding the aerial shooting. On Feb. 8, the Forest Service issued an impound notice informing ranchers that they should move their cattle off of the range in the area where the feral cattle are roaming. 

“This has been a difficult decision, but 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,” Camille Howes, the Gila National Forest supervisor, said in a press release. “The feral cattle in the Gila Wilderness have been aggressive towards wilderness visitors, graze year-round, and trample stream banks and springs, causing erosion and sedimentation. This action will help restore the wilderness character of the Gila Wilderness enjoyed by visitors from across the country.”

The Forest Service plans to contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS. APHIS has previously used aerial and ground shooting to control coyotes or feral swine on behalf of the agriculture industry in New Mexico, according to a concurrence letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dated Feb. 10.

APHIS plans to leave the carcasses on site to decompose, but will not shoot animals near water, trails or culturally-sensitive areas. If a carcass is found near one of those areas, that carcass will be removed.

Leaving the carcasses in the area to decompose has ranchers concerned that wolves could scavenge on the bodies and begin to view cattle as prey. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service states in the concurrence letter that there is no evidence supporting that fear when it comes to Mexican wolves. The service does not anticipate additional conflicts between wolves and livestock as a result of the shooting initiative.

A biological assessment states that there is one wolf pack in the area where the feral cattle are roaming. This wolf pack is near Brushy Mountain. Another pack began using a southern portion of the area where the cattle are roaming last year. Other packs or lone wolves have occasionally ventured into the territory.

In some circumstances, APHIS may choose to use ground shooting methods where one or two people will either hike in or ride a horse to areas where cattle are known to congregate.

Past roundup efforts have been unsuccessful in reducing the growing population of cattle.

While opponents say that brands cannot be seen from the air, hundreds of feral cattle have been rounded up over the decades and only one was found to have a brand.

Proponents of aerial shooting say that the rough terrain makes rounding up the cattle treacherous and roundups have resulted in cattle dying. They say that the roundups would also put horses and riders at risk.

“The unacceptable ecological destruction caused by feral cattle on this landscape is well-documented and has persisted for decades,” Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild, said in a press release. “All parties agree that the feral cattle do not belong here.  These measures are absolutely needed to protect these critical riparian areas and the species dependent upon those areas and now is the time to finish the job. The continued presence of unbranded cattle gives everyone a black eye. We appreciate the Gila National Forest’s leadership in taking this action and stand in strong support.”