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So, the Federal Government Is Shooting Cows From Helicopters in New Mexico

Rick Bowmer

This weekend, cows roaming in southwest New Mexico's Gila National Forest are being hunted from helicopters after the United States Forest Service (USFS) decided to move forward with plans to use "lethal methods" to "remove...approximately 150 head of cattle" in Gila National Forest's second chopper hunt in as many years. 


Despite the federal reserve covering more than three million acres, apparently these 150 cows need to be gunned down from above "to protect public safety, threatened and endangered species habitats, water quality, and the natural character of the Gila Wilderness."

The Forest Service says the cattle set to be shot from helicopters are "feral" and "have been aggressive towards wilderness visitors, graze year-round, and trample stream banks and springs, causing erosion and sedimentation."

A notice posted to the Gila National Forest webpage explains some of the reasoning behind the decision:

The Gila National Forest is working with USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Wildlife Services to remove feral cattle from within the boundaries of the Gila Wilderness. Due to the terrain, their numbers are challenging to determine but the best estimate is that there are approximately 150 head of cattle. The most efficient and humane way to deal with this issue is with the responsible lethal removal of the feral cattle. 

With little dignity, the USFS says the "dispatched cattle will be left onsite to naturally decompose" but "will ensure no carcasses are adjacent to or in any waterbody or spring, designated hiking trail, or known culturally sensitive area." 


But the U.S. Forest Service's description of its chopper hunt taking place between Thursday and Sunday is questioned by some cattle growers, such as the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA), New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, Humane Farming Association, and Spur Lake Cattle Company. 

After an application for a temporary restraining order to prevent what R-CALF USA calls an "aerial slaughter" was denied by a federal judge, its Property Rights Committee Chair Shad Sullivan says the federal government's characterization of the situation doesn't tell the full story.

According to Sullivan, the "cattle in question are descendants of herds that legally grazed on rancher-owned allotments decades ago," and "estrays may have intermingled with adjacent allotment owners branded and tagged cattle, proving they are domestic livestock," contrary to the Forest Service's claim the cattle are "feral." Sullivan also noted that a fire last year "destroyed over 30 miles of fencing near the aerial gunning operation area."

In Sullivan's view, "not only is the gunning down of the animals inhumane and cruel, but an environmental issue as well." He added that the results of last year's chopper hunt "were in some cases considered grotesque, as some cattle were shot but were not killed," "calves were left motherless, and mature cattle received injuries that prolonged suffering, leading to an inevitable death and leaving carcasses strewn about the land and in waterways." 


This time around, Sullivan estimates that the hunt taking place this weekend "will leave 65 tons of beef to decompose."

Beyond the cruelty Sullivan accused the U.S. Forest Service of employing, he said a larger issue "may be the unchecked power by unelected bureaucrats within governmental agencies setting a precedent for how federal officials handle authority" and the fact that area cattle ranchers are "contending that the USFS isn’t abiding by its own regulations."

Apparently, this weekend's hunt has been "decades in the making" according to local cattle growers:

Over the years, by over-regulation or otherwise, allotment owners have left or have been removed from the area, leaving the land vacant and without proper management. This resulted in remnants of cattle herds being left behind. With no plans by USFS to reactivate vacant allotments and lengthy and unsuccessful contract applications for a more humane cattle removal plan, the decades-long problem has come to a head. 

Sullivan further cited "pressure from environmental groups" as weighing on the Forest Service's decision to use helicopter hunters to put down the cattle. He and R-CALF USA maintain their call for the USFS to "consider other options, such as seeking applications for private individuals to gather the cattle over time or, at least, putting the meat from the estray cattle to good use such as for feeding people in need."


So, your tax dollars at work: funding chopper cow hunters that will leave some 65 tons of otherwise good beef to decompose in a national forest because otherwise 150 cows might trample some grass in the three million acre reserve. 


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