47 cattle gunned down in N.M. by US Forest Service

U.S. Forest Service sharp shooters killed 47 head of stray cattle on Thursday, Feb. 10 and were in the air again on Friday as part of the USFS aerial gunning in the Gila National Forest and Wilderness in New Mexico. Numbers were provided to New Mexico Cattle Growers Association from APHIS Wildlife Services Thursday evening and reported no cattle were observed with ear tags or brands prior to engagement.

According to Caren Cowan, publisher of New Mexico Stockman and a consultant for New Mexico Federal Lands Council, the cattle located in the rough, mountain terrain are strays left behind by forest service permittees that grazed prior to the removal of corrals, fences, and other infrastructure. This action is a direct result of a lawsuit against the US Forest Service by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) which the Forest Service settled, according to Loren Patterson, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association. In 2021, The Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon Society sued the U.S. Forest Service claiming that stray cattle have destroyed critical habitat for the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.

Budd-Falen said lawsuits filed by CBD against the USFS date back even further, claiming that riparian areas, despite the heavy presence of elk and feral horses, have been destroyed solely by estray cattle. There are certainly feral cattle in the area, she said, resulting from a permittee in the area abandoning the cattle decades ago following financial and legal trouble. The grazing allotments were closed by the USFS some 20 years ago, though cattle producers graze in the area and may have individuals in their herd running with the feral cattle or in the area.

One of the cattle groups’ complaints is the lack of notice provided prior to the aerial gunning to allow nearby producers to ensure they had no cattle in the area. Budd-Falen said the groups were notified on Friday, Feb. 4.

The Forest Service had notified the Center for Biological Diversity of the plan, but did not notify the cattlemen groups, she said, a clear case of having their stakeholders backwards. The following Monday, Budd-Falen sent a notice of intent to sue on behalf of the NMCGA to USFS. On Tuesday, the DOJ indicated the aerial gunning plan may not move forward until Tuesday night, an email was sent to Budd-Falen with the news that an APHIS helicopter with a sharpshooter would begin operations Thursday.

“We filed a complaint and a motion for temporary restraining order in federal court on Wednesday, were awarded an emergency hearing Wednesday night,” she said. “The government assured the judge that these were all unbranded cows, and the sharpshooter would be precise so the cattle wouldn’t suffer. The most outrageous thing they said — the cattle carcasses would be gone in a week. Anybody that’s been around cattle carcasses knows they don’t turn into bones in a week.”


Federal District Judge James O. Browning in Albuquerque ruled that operations could move forward on Feb. 10 and 11 and then stop until 2023. Budd-Falen said she will be moving forward with the merits of the case as there is a specific statute that indicates what the USFS is to do with stray cattle, which certainly does not allow aerial gunning of livestock. The hearing of the merits of the case is pending scheduling.

Budd-Falen said there was previously a contractor hired to gather the cattle but was unsuccessful. However, she said had the USFS allowed the grazing allotment to continue, its likely that the new permittee would have gathered the cattle to protect his own cattle and genetic program from the strays.

The precedent this sets, she said, is horrid.

“If a court says you can go shoot livestock here, then they can go do it in Colorado or Wyoming or anywhere,” she said. “It’s frightening precedent.”

Bronson Corn, president-elect of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association said the repercussions of this aerial gunning will be felt in his state and by the agriculture community for some time.

“Those animals could have entered the food chain and been of benefit to many, instead they are being consumed by predators that already have the natural inclination to depredate producer’s livestock,” he said. “The overall situation and the waste of protein is saddening.”

Based on retail prices in nearby Santa Fe, the estimated 200 head of cattle in the target area represent about $400,000 of ground beef.

“Today is a sad day for the livestock industry,” said Patterson. “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.

Ranchers have been working on this issue for some time, with the promise from the Forest Service that gun killing was not an option.

“They lied,” said one rancher involved in the situation.


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