US Forest issues New Mexico wild cattle kill order

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Gunner-laden helicopters will fly over parts of southwestern New Mexico’s vast Gila Wilderness next week, looking for wild cattle to kill.

U.S. Forest Service administrators Thursday approved a plan to protect sensitive sites in the country’s first designated wilderness areas. The move is poised to legally challenge how unbranded livestock and other feral cattle are treated as drought worsens in the West.

The American Gila National Forest made the decision amid pressure from environmental groups who expressed concern that the hooves and mouths of nearly 150 cows were damaging streams and rivers. Ranchers, meanwhile, have criticized the plan to shoot cows from helicopters as animal cruelty. They said this action violated federal regulations and would cause problems if the corpses were allowed to decompose.

Portions of the Gila Wilderness will be closed to the public starting Monday. A helicopter will take off on Thursday, and the shooter will spend four days searching for wild cattle in a rugged area that includes the Gila River.

Forest manager Camille Howes said the decision was difficult but necessary.

“Gila monsters wild cattle are aggressive to wilderness visitors, grazing year-round, trampling riverbanks and springs, causing erosion and sedimentation,” she said in a statement.

Ranching industry groups and other local advocates are concerned that the action taken in New Mexico could set a precedent for ranching plots to become vacant in the West.

Ranchers say there are fewer people to maintain the fences and no more country neighbors to help corral the wayward cows. Some have left their businesses as the drought worsens, water shortages for cattle and skyrocketing costs of feed and other supplies.

The New Mexico Cattle Producers Association estimates that there are about 90 vacant grazing lots in New Mexico and Arizona. Increased use of public lands, including hunting and hiking, has also led to fence collapses, the association said. Moose were also responsible for damaging the fences used to hold the cattle.

Tom Patterson, chairman of the association’s wildlife committee, said the group was trying to find a solution that didn’t involve shooting wild cattle. pointed to recent directives issued by the New Mexico Livestock Commission that allow the collection and removal of

Snow has accumulated and access is restricted. Patterson said federal officials haven’t given enough time to see if the directive works. He accuses them of dodging and shooting as a last resort.

“Easy is not the exception to its own rule. Frustration is not the exception to the rule,” he said. “Our society should be better than this. We can be more creative and do it in better ways that don’t waste our economic resources.”

Over the decades, environmentalists have claimed in dozens of lawsuits filed in Western courts that cows are ruining land and water by trampling riverbanks. They applauded the Forest Service’s decision.

“We can expect immediate results: clean water, healthy rivers and restored wildlife habitat,” said Todd Schulke, co-founder of the Center for Biodiversity.

This position marks a shift from the environmental community’s stance on shooting other wildlife, from fighting over conservation. grand canyon bison To the annual complaints about the actions of the USDA Wildlife Service, which are often vilified for killing birds, coyotes, wolves, mountain lions and other animals.

Just last month, environmentalists were sued in Montana over a program aimed at control. grizzly bearIn 2021, Nature Conservancy Settled in another lawsuit About Wildlife Service Practices in Idaho. National and international environmental groups have long argued that government agencies’ predator control efforts violate environmental laws.

But the New Mexico Center for Biological Diversity argues that water quality problems will only get worse if wild cattle are not removed. I’m assuming it’s allowed to graze. The Guira Wilderness is a remote area of ​​over 870 square miles (2,253 square kilometers), home to the endangered Mexican gray wolf, elk, deer and other wildlife.

After the New Mexico Cattle Producers Association reached an agreement with federal officials following last year’s run, the National Cattlemen’s Association asked the Forest Service to postpone the lethal action for a year. It is expected that the latest decision will be challenged.

According to the Forest Service, the buffalo problem dates back half a century, when cattle operations went out of business and subsequent grazing permits were suspended. Hundreds of unauthorized cattle have been removed over the years.

In 2022, Forest Service contractors killed 65 cows in an airstrike similar to one scheduled for next week.

A photo shared by a rancher from the 2022 operation showed a dead cow lying upside down in the Gila River. Federal officials said the bodies were pulled from the water. A survey conducted 90 days later found no remains. Clam birds and other animals ate them, officials said.

Future operations will cover approximately 160 square miles (414 square kilometers).

Bodies should not be left near waterways or springs, or designated hiking trails or known culturally sensitive areas.

Neither this work, nor the noise from the helicopter, can interfere with the breeding season of spotted owls in Mexico, flycatchers in the American Southwest, and other endangered species. Aerial shooting operations are expected to be completed by April, when the Mexican gray wolf pup season begins.

Environmentalists pointed to the removal of livestock carcasses as a precautionary measure to limit conflicts between wolves and ranchers. But federal officials said in a document released this week that there is no scientific research or observational data to suggest that wolves become accustomed to cows after scavenging dead animals.