Federal officials from the U.S. Forest Service on Friday climbed into helicopters with high-powered rifles and set their sights on cows. A planned “lethal removal” of about 150 un-owned cattle roaming New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness in Gila National Forest was set to begin Thursday and run through Sunday, February 26.
Because of a weather delay, the aerial shooting began Friday morning instead Thursday, a Gila National Forest spokesperson told Earther in a phone call today. Due to the delay, the spokesperson said it’s possible the cattle cull will run through February 27, a day later than scheduled.
A section of the Wilderness has been closed to the public since Monday in preparation for the operation, after USFS announced its decision to kill the cattle one week ago. The strategy immediately faced a court challenge, which was resolved earlier this week.
On Wednesday, a U.S. District Judge approved the Forest Service’s proposal to shoot up to 150 feral cows—the total number that USFS officials estimate are in the Gila Wilderness herd—striking down a requested delay from a group of ranchers and the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. In the plaintiffs’ view, their legal complaint wasn’t just about a particular set of cows but about a possible precedent for how the feds manage unclaimed or unbranded livestock on public land, according to a report from the Associated Press. To make their case, the cattle ranchers claimed shooting down the problem cows would be “unlawful, cruel, and environmentally harmful.”
Really, though, it’s the cows themselves that have been causing ecological harm, countered the judge’s order—supporting the view of the USFS, decades of scientific research, and environmental advocacy groups like the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The Defendants are charged with managing the Gila Wilderness for the benefit of the citizens of the United States, and have determined that the Operation is in furtherance of that aim and in compliance with its powers,” District Judge James Browning wrote in his decision.
The USFS has designated the animals in Gila Wilderness “feral,” while rancher groups have argued the cows are still genetically domesticated. Regardless of the cattle’s origins and parentage, the federal agency and judge agree they need to be eliminated.
“No one disputes that the Gila Cattle need to be removed and are doing significant damage to the Gila Wilderness. The Court does not see a legal prohibition on the Operation. It would be contrary to the public interest to stop the Operation from proceeding,” Browning noted.
Cattle grazing is allowed via permits on much of the USFS’s and Bureau of Land Management’s western acres. Though, even when sanctioned, it’s an incredibly divisive issue, with environmental advocates decrying damage to plants and ecosystems, while ranchers defend the practice as a way of life. Cattle aren’t just bad for the climate; they can also be terrible for the land.
But the cows in Gila Wilderness are a special case. They’re not currently owned by anyone and are “unauthorized” (i.e., not covered by any active grazing permit). The animals have been there for decades—likely the descendants of escaped or lost livestock of years yore, from when legal grazing was allowed in the area in the 1970's. Currently, grazing isn’t allowed in Gila Wilderness, although there are permitted grazing allotments in bordering areas of the national forest.
Left to their own devices, the cows have munched on copious amounts of plants and bred, multiplying into an unmanaged environmental issue. “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,” said Camille Howes, Gila National Forest Supervisor, in a press statement.
Though shooting cows from helicopters might seem an extreme solution to the problem, the animals are effectively an invasive species. USFS has tried less lethal approaches. Officials have attempted to round up and remove the cattle without killing them. However, the Gila Wilderness’s rough terrain made such operations difficult, costly, and dangerous to the personnel involved. Additionally, these roundups and cattle drives led to about 50% cow mortality anyway, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Killing the cattle from the sky is “the most efficient and humane way to deal with this issue,” wrote USFS officials in their news statement. And this isn’t the first time that the federal agency has used firearms to fight livestock grazing.
In February 2022, USFS conducted aerial shooting of cattle in the same sector of the Gila Wilderness. In last year’s operation, officials took out about 65 cows. No branded cows were injured, and the agency considered the cull a success. Yet, without further action, the cows’ numbers would likely rebound and continue to grow. Hence, the slaughter part two.
Per the USFS proposal, officials are supposed to ensure that the cows aren’t mowed down next to sensitive areas like hiking trails or waterbodies. But otherwise, the animal carcasses won’t be removed. Instead, the “dispatched cattle” will be left on the landscape to decompose over time, feeding scavengers and soil—returning all those grazed nutrients back into the system from whence they came.
Update 2/24/2023, 12:55 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with new information from a USFS spokesperson about the weather delay and altered cull timeline.