ALBUQUERQUE, NM. – The US Forest Service (USFS) proceeded with a plan to kill roughly 200 head of feral cattle in the Gila National Forest – using sharpshooters in helicopters. The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, which opposes the operation, said 47 head were killed on the first day of the cull.

The Forest Service is conducting the cull over protests from the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association (NMCGA), the New Mexico Livestock Board and other organizations that advocated for a less risky approach.

Loren Patterson, president of NMCGA, said, “The federal government has made up rules about what it can do, regardless of whether it was given that authority and regardless of whether its action violates New Mexico state law.  Killing of cattle by a government sniper from a helicopter is inhumane. Cattle will be wounded and suffer; calves will be left motherless. It is appalling and hypocritical that animal rights organizations have not voiced a strong protest and instead support these actions.”

NMCGA unsuccessfully sought a restraining order to prevent the aerial shooting of the cattle by filing a complaint to the US District Court for New Mexico. The association is concerned that privately owned cattle could be destroyed alongside the feral cattle. Court documents state that 20 to 30 head of livestock owned by Double Springs Ranch, which is listed as a plaintiff, could be in the Gila Wilderness and could be shot by Animal and Plant Health Inspection (APHIS) agents.

“Forest Service regulations specifically govern the removal of unbranded livestock from a grazing allotment or area closed to livestock grazing,” the court document said. “There is no federal statute or regulations allowing the federal government to shoot livestock from a helicopter. Rather, branded and/or unbranded cattle that are grazing unlawfully on National Forest Service lands or Wilderness areas managed by the USFS must be seized and impounded, after certain conditions are met.”

The complaint also noted that both branded and unbranded livestock often are included among the animals that have strayed onto the Gila Wilderness.

“Thus, there is no assurance that the operations proposed by Respondents/Defendants will not result in killing of privately owned livestock,” the complaint stated.

Local ranchers are concerned that carcasses left on the ground to decompose could become a food source for bears, mountain lions and the endangered Mexican wolf. The court document stated, “because of the presence of federally listed threatened or endangered species in the area, including the Mexican wolf, the Federal agencies are required to consider any adverse impact on the species as well as the adverse environmental and human impacts such as food conditioning or whether the introduction of a new food source (200 dead livestock) will adversely impact the Mexican wolf reintroduction program.”

The Forest Service has said previously that feral cattle have been running loose in portions of the Gila National Forest for more than 50 years. The cull “is part of a decades-long effort to protect natural resources and stem the spread of unauthorized cattle that have been in the removal area since the 1970s,” the agency said.

“Unmanaged cattle cause long-term damage to water quality, riparian ecosystem conditions, and habitat for threatened and endangered species,” the agency said in a notice explaining a temporary closure of certain portions of the Gila Wilderness, Glenwood and Silver City. “Since 1994, the USDA Forest Service has removed over 640 of the unauthorized and unbranded cattle from the Gila National Forest.”

Opponents of the aerial shooting said the Forest Service didn’t consider the environmental impact of leaving 200 dead cattle to decompose where they are shot.