February 21, 2023

Solutions sought as the federal shooting of feral cattle in the Gila Wilderness approaches

Center for Biological Diversity

As the clock ticks down toward the timeframe when the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will begin shooting feral cattle in the Gila Wilderness from helicopters, a controversial attempt to solve the feral cow problem failed in its first committee.

The House Agriculture, Acequias and Water Resources Committee quickly tabled HB 423 on a unanimous vote on Tuesday.

HB 423, sponsored by Rep. Luis Terrazas, R-Santa Clara, would allow people to roundup and sell estray cattle in certain circumstances.

“This is probably not the perfect solution,” he said while introducing the bill. “I think we’re all just trying to find a solution.”

If at least 15 cattle are found on someone’s private land or grazing property, that person, under HB 423, could petition the New Mexico Livestock Board for the right to remove those cattle. An inspection would be required within 15 days of the livestock board receiving that notice and, if the livestock board is unable or unwilling to take possession of the cattle, the person would be allowed to roundup the cattle and sell them or possibly brand the cattle. 

But ranchers and livestock organizations across the state opposed HB 423, expressing concerns that it could lead to livestock theft.

Shawn Davis, the deputy director of the New Mexico Livestock Board, said that every year the livestock board returns $500,000 to $800,000 worth of stray livestock to the owners.

“This bill would hinder that process by trying to apply solutions to the Gila area statewide,” Davis said.

That was one reason ranchers from around the state stood in opposition to the bill on Tuesday.

They were not alone in the opposition. Environmental advocacy groups joined them in opposing the legislation.

Todd Schulke, co-founder of Center for Biological Diversity said that “the irony about HB 423 is that it actually wouldn’t help with the Gila feral cattle situation because the authority would be limited to federal lands, leased lands or permitted allotments on federal lands, none of which those things apply to the Gila Wilderness where those cattle are.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is among the environmental advocacy groups supporting the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to contract with APHIS for the lethal removal of feral cattle.

Allyson Siwik, executive director of the Gila Conservation Coalition, described HB 423 as an attempt to take the jurisdiction away from the Forest Service in regards to addressing unbranded feral cattle on federal lands. She also expressed concerns that the bill could lead to conflict between ranchers and would weaken the state livestock board’s ability to do its job.

Siwek said that HB 423 would also allow up to two years for the livestock to be removed, during which time the serious ecological damage caused by the feral cattle would continue.

Donna Stevens, executive director of the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance, said HB 423 is unnecessary. She said the feral cattle don’t meet New Mexico’s definition of estray because they have never had an owner.

“The Forest Service already has legal authority to remove the feral cattle from the Gila Wilderness,” she said.

Stevens said there are compelling ecological reasons to remove the cattle from the wilderness.

“Lethal removal is the most humane way to accomplish that because more than half of the cattle die in roundups in this rugged wilderness,” she said.

The state veterinarian, Dr. Ralph Zimmerman, opposed the bill because it would exempt the cattle from undergoing health tests if sold for slaughter within 30 days.

Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, also spoke about that exemption while explaining her decision to vote in favor of tabling the legislation.

“One other thing that has stuck out to me is the threat of trichomoniasis,” she said.

Ezzell expressed concerns that sick cattle could be sold out of state, leading to a ban on livestock imports of cattle from New Mexico.

Ezzell has been among the most outspoken lawmakers opposing the aerial shooting.

“It’s nothing more than animal cruelty because they’re not actually killing all the cows,” she said. “They are wounding them. They are left in agonizing, excruciating pain to die on the floor of the forest.”

What comes next

The aerial shooting of the cattle is expected to begin on Thursday. The shooting comes after decades of efforts, including roundups, haven’t eradicated the feral herd that is damaging ecological resources such as riparian areas in the rugged, remote wilderness.

“These feral cattle are not domesticated animals and pose a significant threat to public safety and natural resources,” the Forest Service stated in a press release announcing the shooting plans.

Some of the nearby ranchers are concerned that their cattle may have joined the feral herd after the Black Fire damaged and destroyed fences last summer or during the monsoon season that followed. 

“The Forest Service is committed to continued efforts toward collaborative solutions and will continue to coordinate with permittees in their efforts to locate, gather, and remove their branded cattle from areas where they are not authorized,” the press release states.

In the past, only one cow that was roaming with the feral brand has been captured during roundups.

But Loren Patterson, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, said that the ranchers were not given enough time to remove their cattle.

Patterson told NM Political Report that the cattle growers association is seeking ways to stop the aerial shooting from occurring.

On Tuesday, the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, as well as the organization Humane Farming Association, sued the U.S. Forest Service and asked the federal district court for an injunction to stop the shooting from taking place. The cattle growers association is asking for this injunction on the basis that the Forest Service and APHIS did not give a 75-day notice and that the federal agencies do not have the authority to shoot the cattle.

“I want everybody to know that we extended the olive branch last year to the Forest Service when we dropped the lawsuit and tried to find viable solutions,” Patterson said during an interview last week.

He said he does not believe the environmental impact of the cattle is as large as some people claim as the allotment would have held more cattle than are currently on it when the allotment was active.

“I think we can find better alternatives than aerial gunning of those unauthorized livestock,” he said.

Patterson said the problem has been going on for decades and he questioned the urgency behind removing the cattle.

He said that following last year’s shooting of the cattle, the cattle grower’s association met with organizations like the livestock board. Patterson said the association worked out an agreement with the livestock board with provisions similar to those in HB 423 but focused on the Gila cattle. He said they reached an agreement in December and implemented the program at the beginning of the year.

“We’ve already gathered 10 head of cattle,” Patterson said.

He said the cattle growers association wants one year to allow that directive to work.

Patterson said one person went in and gathered those 10 head of cattle and that once spring comes he anticipates it will be even more effective. 

Patterson believes that the majority of the herd could be removed from the wilderness. He said that if some cattle can’t be rounded up because of higher risk levels, then discussions about lethal removal could occur.

He acknowledged that rounding up the animals will be dangerous.

“Animal agriculture and cattle ranching in particular is always risky, you’re dealing with animals that weigh ten times what you do,” he said.

This story has been updated to include that the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday