The Gila National Forest in New Mexico has begun closing its boundaries to outside use. No, it’s not because of winter weather or snow, but to commence with the second aerial gunning of cattle loose in the wilderness area.
The aerial gunning is set to take place from Thursday through Sunday of this week. And, while the U.S. Forest Service says that it is doing it for the safety of the public, as well as for the preservation of endangered species and natural habitat, the move has caused a major public outcry and sparked a lawsuit by ranchers and animal-rights groups alike.
“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. “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.”
In response to the announcement, the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association filed a Complaint and Application for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction against the Forest Service and the USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service in the Federal District Court of New Mexico. Interestingly, NMCGA is joined as a plaintiff by the Humane Farming Association, a 270,000-member group that not only opposes shooting cattle from helicopters, but also that speaks out against raising veal or any animals in confinement (they call this “imprisonment”).
USFS believes there are about 150 head still in the wilderness. While most of the cattle are likely not domesticated animals, ranchers have expressed concerns that branded cattle could have strayed into the wilderness over the past year through water gaps damaged by heavy monsoon rains.
Last year, the USFS and APHIS issued an announcement that they would begin removing cattle by aerial gunning in the Gila Wilderness, ultimately shooting 65 head of cattle. According to reports, cattle that were shot were sometimes only wounded and left to bleed out. Photographs showed carcasses on the banks of the Gila River, and calves were at times left orphaned. Now, the Forest Service promises that although dispatched cattle will be left onside to decompose, “Staff will ensure no carcasses are adjacent to or in any waterbody or spring, designated hiking trail, or known culturally sensitive area.”
Following last year’s incident, the NMCGA and other organizations filed suit against the USFS, but later dropped the action if the USFS would provide 75 days of written notice to any future aerial slaughter operations. This time, however, USFS provided a mere seven days of notice.
“Unfortunately, after a year of abiding by our settlement agreement we are now back to square one,” said Loren Patterson, president of NMCGA. “Throughout the past year, we offered real solutions to the Forest Service for the Gila estray problem. Those solutions would address the immediate issue, provide long-term resolution and would be humane.”
The Forest Service’s aerial slaughter process and plan has drawn bi-partisan condemnation. The New Mexico House of Representative has agreed with the state’s cattle association that the slaughter should be stopped and showed its support through signature on letters drafted by ranking member of the House Agriculture, Acequias & Water Resources Committee, Republican Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, and Speaker of the House Javier Martinez, a Democrat.
Many New Mexico citizens and former residents recognized that the leaving the carcasses on the ground to rot is a waste of food that could be used to feed people in need in the state. Others in New Mexico and neighboring states believe that, if not stopped, these aerial slaughter operations could become a standard tool for the USFS across New Mexico and other parts of the West.