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An entrance sign for the Gila National Forest. The decision to shoot feral cows in the area from a helicopter has faced backlash from various groups. Photo courtesy of State Parks.

Aerial gunning of feral cattle is met with backlash

The National Forest Service began an aerial gunning operation in the Gila National Forest to kill the population of feral cattle in the area which descend from cattle that were abandoned on a grazing allotment within the Wilderness area in 1976. The operation, which started on Thursday, Feb. 23, is in response to the damaging effects the cattle have on the habitat and water quality of the Park, though the operation has been met with contention due to claims of animal cruelty.

This project is part of ongoing efforts since the ‘90s — both lethal and nonlethal — to remove the feral cattle population from the land. The first aerial gunning on the population was done in February 2022 in which 65 cattle were killed, according to Maribeth Pecotte, public affairs officer for the Gila National Forest.

“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,” Pecotte wrote to the Daily Lobo.

The cattle are a detriment to the local environment’s health: they pollute the water sources directly through defecation and urination, cause erosion through trampling at the waterbanks and overgraze, which could over time prevent further growth of the forest, according to Todd Schulke, a co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Schulke, who lives in the Gila region, has seen the detrimental effects the overgrazing has had on flora as well as the polluting effects the cattle have had on the water; he said habitat regrowth in the area has been almost immediate each time a large-scale removal has been conducted.

“It’ll respond very quickly. The grasses and small trees will prop up immediately; the water will be clean immediately, the habitat for other wildlife species will come back very quickly. That’s one thing — a lot of these cattle are along the Gila River, and riverside forests and grasslands come back extremely quickly after disturbance … We’ve seen this over and over: when cattle are removed, the area will just respond immediately,” Schulke said.

Prior to this, around 211 cattle from this population were removed through gather-and-removal contracts over the last 26 years. Still, around 50 to 150 cattle remain on the lands, according to Pecotte.

This process is limited both due to the high cost of round-up, potential danger toward the contractors and the difficult terrain of the Gila which leads 50% of gathered cattle to have to be euthanized before removal due to exertion and injuries, according to Schulke.

“I think the bottom line is that, they’ve tried other methods and none of them have been successful over a period of decades, and it’s unfortunate to have to take this step, but it’s the most efficient and effective tool, and it's the only way to make sure we get the cattle out of there and solve this problem once and for all,” Schulke said.

The decision to proceed with the aerial gunning has been met with backlash and claims of animal cruelty. On Wednesday, a federal judge rejected a request from the New Mexico Cattle Grower’s Association and the Humane Farming Association to delay the start of the shooting.

Most recently, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement regarding the issue in which she criticized the lack of engagement by the Forest Service with those involved at the impacted areas and urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the USFS to “do better” for the people of New Mexico.

“While I understand the challenge the U.S. Forest Service is rightly trying to solve, I am disappointed in their lack of meaningful, long-term engagement with New Mexico stakeholders on controversial matters like this one,” the statement read.

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The Cattle Growers’ Association had been pushing for the USFS to continue with roundup methods, which the USFS did not consider to be an efficient measure. They also proposed fencing in cattle into grazing areas, which Schulke said would not be legal within the Wilderness area and would also require additional care for the maintenance of the animals. Bradley Miller, president of the Human Farming Association, sees this operation as a part of a pattern of callousness on the part of the USFS.

“The bottom line is that, as human beings and as a society, we’re capable of many incredible things, and we certainly have the wherewithal to remove a limited number of cows and calves from property without resorting to helicopters terrorizing them and wounding them and leaving them to suffer and die,” Miller said.

Miller contends that it is difficult to get a “clean shot” at the animals, leading to them being injured and left to die slowly rather than being killed quickly — calves may also be left to die of starvation when their mothers are killed.

“The court argued that there would be no irreparable harm by conducting this cruel slaughter, but there is irreparable harm to the environment when animal carcasses are strewn all over our wilderness area and going into waterways … and there’s irreparable harm to the individual animals that are suffering and dying, and there’s harm to all of us that care about unnecessary animal suffering,” Miller said.

Miller said he also worries that carcasses will be left in waterways, polluting the waterways and attracting scavenger species. According to the decision memo from the USFS on the 2023 operation, shot cattle will be left in place to decompose naturally and will “only be shot when away from water sources, trails, cultural sites and all other locations identified by Gila National Forest Service.” The Fence Post published several images of Cows dead in Gila waterways after the 2022 gunning.

Miller said that the actions of the USFS break state animal cruelty laws and also contends that they violate the “Humane Slaughter Act,” which states that slaughtered animals must be rendered unconscious when killed. The HFA and NMCGA plan to continue seeking legal action as well as reach out in Congress on legislation to potentially prevent next year’s expected shooting.

The operation ended on Sunday, Feb. 26; the small window between hunting season, Mexican spotted owl breeding season and springtime park hours means that any more aerial operations will likely not be conducted until next year, according to Schulke. The USFS believes it likely that more cattle will remain at the end of the operation, after which they plan to continue with both lethal and nonlethal methods to remove the remaining.

Zara Roy is the copy chief at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @zarazzledazzle 

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