WASHINGTON (DTN) -- USDA got the greenlight to start hunting as many as 150 cattle by helicopter in a New Mexico national forest after a federal judge on Wednesday, Feb. 22, declined to halt the hunting plan.
U.S. District Judge James O. Browning for the U.S. District Court in New Mexico filed a 27-page opinion on Wednesday following a court hearing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, allowing USDA to go ahead with plans to shoot feral cattle in the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico. Browning rejected the request from cattle producers and others for a temporary restraining order to halt the aerial hunt.
In rejecting the restraining order, Browning noted, "No one disputes that the Gila Cattle need to be removed and are doing significant damage to the Gila Wilderness."
New Mexico cattle producers and an animal rights group had asked the federal courts to halt USDA's plan.
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) plans to shoot as many as 150 "unauthorized" cattle from a helicopter in Gila National Forest, starting as early as Thursday, Feb. 23.
The New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, along with Spur Lake Cattle Co., a pair of individual producers and the Humane Farming Association, had filed the lawsuit Tuesday against the USDA Forest Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), along with top USDA officials and the supervisor at Gila National Forest.
Spur Lake is a New Mexico-based cattle company that owns and operates several ranches along the New Mexico and Arizona border. Also suing was Nelson Shirley, Spur Lake's president, but he also owns individual grazing allotments near the Gila National Forest, and his branded cattle legally graze on some land within the forest.
The Humane Farming Association is a California-based group that also operates Suwanna Ranch -- the world's largest farmed animal refuge -- which provides more than 7 square miles of land for rescued victims of animal cruelty.
Gila National Forest is the sixth-largest national forest in the U.S., southwest of Albuquerque and includes Gila Wilderness, an undeveloped area of about 560,000 acres.
A year ago, the Forest Service had its first aerial hunt on the forest, shooting 65 head of cattle from a helicopter. The New Mexico Cattle Growers, Spur Lake and others filed an initial lawsuit at that time. That led to the stipulation that any aerial operations to kill the cattle before March 1, 2025, would include a 75-day notice.
The Forest Service announced Feb. 16 in a statement that the agency would again remove feral cattle from the forest "using lethal methods." The Forest Service said, "These feral cattle are not domesticated animals and pose a significant threat to public safety and natural resources."
With that, the Forest Service would close at least part of the national forest on Feb. 20 and conduct its aerial hunts from Feb. 23-26.
"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," said Camille Howes, Gila National Forest supervisor and a defendant in the lawsuit. "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 cites the terrain and number of cattle involved as leading to the conclusion, "The most efficient and humane way to deal with this issue is with the responsible lethal removal of the feral cattle."
In their filing, the cattle producers state the U.S. Forest Service had reached a stipulation last summer that the agency would provide the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, Spur Lake and the public at least 75 days' notice of any decision to cattle.
The cattle group and others wanted the judge to require the Forest Service to follow the 75-day notice period.
Yet, the Forest Service did issue a notice on Nov. 17, 2022, that it intended to deal with unbranded and unauthorized cattle in the forest through both live and lethal means, including shooting the animals from either the air or ground.
The cattle producers also challenged the authority of the Forest Service to "aerially gun down cattle in the complete absence of any federal statutory or regulatory authority to do so," the complaint states.
In the past, the Forest Service promulgated rules to impound, sell and potentially destroy feral livestock. The cattle producers cite that the Forest Service isn't abiding by its own regulations.
The ranchers stated in their complaint that it's common for fences to be left open by recreational users in the forest or fences or gates to be knocked down by large wildlife as well. At least 30 miles of fencing were also burned by Forest Service backfires in May last year.
The lack of fencing allows a lot of cattle to wander into other areas of the forest.
The Forest Service claims a certain number of cattle have been in the forest for decades and developed into "undomesticated 'feral' cattle," numbering between 150 and 200 head, though the cattle producers maintain genetic markers show the cattle are progeny of legal livestock permitted in the forest.
The New Mexico Livestock Board in early January also issued a finding that aerial hunting of cattle is "not in accordance with commonly accepted agricultural animal husbandry practices," and the shooting constitutes an act of animal cruelty.
The Forest Service cited the complaints about downed fences and concerns over branded cattle as well. The agency said it will work with cattle producers to remove those branded cattle from the area.
Once the feral cattle are shot, they will be left to decompose naturally, the Forest Service stated, unless they are "adjacent to or in any waterbody or spring, designated hiking trail, or known culturally sensitive area."
Loren Patterson, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, told the New York Times that the Forest Service could address the cause of the growing feral cattle population by taking measures such as repairing shoddy fences that allow cattle to enter the Gila Wilderness.
"They are not looking at solving the reason the cattle are there," Patterson said, noting that instead authorities were using lethal means as a "quick fix."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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