Judge denies attempts to stop aerial gunning of Gila cattle beginning Feb. 22 | TheFencePost.com

Judge denies attempts to stop aerial gunning of Gila cattle beginning Feb. 22

New Mexico District Judge James O. Browning denied a request for a temporary retraining order and preliminary injunction, allowing the U.S. Forest Service to move forward with aerial gunning of cattle in the Gila Wilderness beginning Feb. 22, 2023.

The filing was an attempt by the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and other stakeholders to stop the gunning operation to remove the cattle.

In his 27-page Memorandum Opinion and Order, Judge Browning found that preventing the operation would be adverse to the public interest and that the USFS Scoping Letter issued Nov. 22, 2022, provided sufficient notice to New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association and other stakeholders of their intent to lethally remove the cattle. The court further found that the Gila cattle are not “unauthorized livestock” because they are not “kept or raised for use or pleasure.” 

“We are disappointed the Court decided it will not stop the USFS from its slaughter campaign,” said Loren Patterson, president NMCGA. “Cattle Growers’ is dedicated to the long-term stewardship of New Mexico’s animals and land. Our industry and members recognize the right thing to do is not always the easiest or cheapest. We will continue to fight for the ethical and humane treatment of estray cattle in the Gila.”

The Associated Press reported the ranchers argued that the case could set a precedent for how federal officials handle unbranded livestock on vacant allotments or deal with other land management conflicts across the West.


The decision has drawn condemnation on both sides of the political aisle. According to NMCGA, the New Mexico House of Representative agrees the slaughter should be stopped and showed its support through signature on letters drafted by ranking member of the House Agriculture, Acequias & Water Resources Committee, Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, and Speaker of the House, Javier Martinez. The group said there is concern about the amount of food wasted in this operation that could otherwise be used to feed residents experiencing food instability. Others in New Mexico and neighboring states believe that, if not stopped, these aerial slaughter operations could become a standard tool for the USFS across New Mexico and the West.

“There’s a severe danger here, not just in this particular case and the horrific results that it will actually bare if this is allowed to go forward. But it also has long-term ramifications for the power of federal agencies to disregard their regulations that they themselves passed,” Daniel McGuire, an attorney for the ranchers, argued.

The Center for Biological Diversity applauded the decision. In a statement, Todd Schulke, co-founder of the CBD, said “feral, unbranded cattle have been destroying fish and wildlife habitat, overgrazing native vegetation, trampling stream banks, and polluting critical water sources within the Gila Wilderness for decades” and that “years of roundup efforts and subsequent ecological monitoring have confirmed that the feral cows in the Gila Wilderness are unowned, unbranded, unauthorized animals that have been reproducing independently of any ranching operation. There are no ranches or active grazing allotments in proximity to the area occupied by the feral cattle. The Gila National Forest has full legal authority to remove unauthorized livestock from federal lands under its management.”

Aerial gunning began Feb. 23 and continued for four consecutive days. The USFS claims there are 150 head to remove from the area. According to a statement by NMCGA, if all estrays are lethally shot, an estimated 65 tons of beef will be left to rot in the Gila Wilderness. The USFS said they will provide GPS coordinates of each kill, and all unbranded cattle — bulls, cows, and calves — will be shot.

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