Another round of USFS sniper operations suggested removing cattle

The US Forest Service has again released a plan to shoot stray cattle from a helicopter in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. In a letter dated November 29, 2022, the USFS requested public comment on plans to remove unmarked and unauthorized cattle from the Gila Wilderness using lethal and/or non-lethal methods.

A carcass left in the Gila River after USFS air fire. courtesy photo

According to the letter, the removal of the livestock is necessary to protect the habitat of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, including federally listed threatened and endangered species.

“The unauthorized cattle in the Gila wilderness trample stream banks and streams, causing erosion and sedimentation,” said Camille Howes, director of Gila National Forest. “This proposal will help restore the wilderness character of the Gila Wilderness by removing non-native species and mitigating the damage caused by overgrazing.”

The USFS estimates there can be a maximum of 150 cattle in the Gila Wilderness, an area with about 1,000 sections. However, the USFS has not released livestock censuses to confirm this estimate. Conversely, the moose population in the same area is estimated at over 5,000 head. To date, the USFS has presented no evidence that this alleged environmental degradation is caused by livestock as opposed to moose.

According to the press release, 756 cattle were removed over the course of nine contracts for their removal by either lethal or non-lethal means. Howes notes that for every animal that is taken out of the wild, one dies or is euthanized due to the remote location, rugged topography, and the stress on the wild, uncooperative animals during capture and removal efforts. The last airborne operation was in February 2022, when the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service conducted two days of aerial bombardment, killing 65 cattle.

Following the removal of cattle by aerial bombardment in 2022, an agreement was reached between the USFS and the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association and other stakeholders to prevent the USFS from conducting helicopter sniper operations. According to the NMCGA, they met monthly with the New Mexico regulator of health and animal identification, the New Mexico Livestock Board and stakeholders to find a long-term solution. Despite agreeing that the escaped cattle do not belong in the wild, NMCGA said in a press release that the USFS has chosen to forgo stakeholder input by refusing to build critical infrastructure, improve existing fences, or Hire people capable of humanely collecting and transporting the livestock.

Another carcass, this one with a broken leg, was left in the Gila River after USFS fired on cattle from the air. courtesy photo

Karen Budd-Falen represented the NMCGA last year in its effort to stop aerial shelling, and she submitted comments on behalf of the New Mexico Federal Lands Council, a 1970s non-profit organization that advocates for the interests of ranchers operating at the federal and state levels rangeland.

Now that the comment period is over, she said the USFS will review the comments and decide whether to complete an environmental review or issue a categorical disqualification and another round of aerial bombardment. She said she expects the latter.

Budd-Falen said the USFS risks setting a dangerous precedent.

“That’s what we’re afraid of,” she said. “If they can decide that they can go out and shoot those cattle because they say the law allows them to shoot cattle, what’s going to stop them from doing it elsewhere?”

A carcass after the 2022 aerial downing of cattle in the Gila Wilderness. courtesy photo

In her comments, she said the 2022 shooting was reckless and left cattle dead in waterways. The USFS said in the scoping notice it plans to leave carcasses to decompose, a decision it says is wasteful when the beef could be used in constructive ways. Leaving carcasses behind, she said, conditions predators like the Mexican wolf to rely on cattle as a food source, adding to the already contentious relationship between ranchers and predators. Testimony from a 2022 meeting of the New Mexico Livestock Board indicated that many of the cattle shot were carried out in ways that caused enduring suffering. At the state assembly, members of the NMLB reviewed photos of the carcasses, several of which were in the waterways that the USFS sought to protect, calling the operation cruelty to animals.

Members of the Western Caucus also sent a letter to USFS Chief Randy Moore asking that the air raid plan be halted immediately. Chairman Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., echoed the cattle groups’ concerns, noting that “previous performances in February 2022 show dead cattle were shot and left in bodies of water” and “that dead cattle were found in or near waters to be decomposed”. are polluting the very water that the forest service wants to protect.”


Members also said that while they understand “only one cow with a tag has been identified in previous removal efforts,” it is “almost impossible to determine whether any of the cattle being shot from a helicopter were tagged or not.” bears a different identification mark. Since the dead cattle are left to decompose on site, ranchers who strayed cattle into the proposed aerial photography area would not be compensated for the loss. This means that the federal government is taking private property without just compensation and without direct federal statutory authority.”

NMFLC maintains this should be determined individually through trademark inspection, not as a blanket assumption. USFS regulations dictate that livestock be collected and confiscated until ownership or sale is determined. The NMFLC also proposed a short-term solution to rebuilding corrals in the area, which fell into disrepair after the USFS refused to issue grazing permits in the area and removed ranchers who maintained fences and infrastructure and kept cattle from straying.

The Colorado Wool Growers Association also submitted comments opposing aerial shooting, citing that the management of stray cattle in the national forests, regardless of species, is a concern. President Nick Maneotis called the November 17, 2022 operation a “shameless debacle” and “certainly one of the darkest pages in the history of the US Forest Service.” He said the USFS calling for euthanasia by aerial gunnery was “an attempt to deliberately conceal this inhumane fiasco committed by the USFS at the behest of radical environmental groups.”

Maneotis said the USFS’s actions “certainly do not conform to a reasonable definition of euthanasia” and, apart from being illegal, “the aerial killing of cattle is not done with due diligence in establishing ownership.”

Drawing comparisons to Colorado’s Bureau of Land Management feral horse collections, he said the BLM “applies extensive oversight to the collection of feral horses in a humane manner, including on-site veterinarians and experienced contractors who have successfully helicoptered, baited, and baited large numbers of horses.” and collect traps for small gatherings.”

“As the USFS has systematically abolished grazing permits for livestock, the fences are deteriorating; and hunters and other recreational athletes leave gates open,” he said. “Over a century of cattle ranching tradition dictates that when you leave the mountain, you get all your cattle out of the forest in the fall, call your neighbor, and sort out strays. Eliminating permits eliminates our land managers.”

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