USFS issues an intent to impound unauthorized livestock in the Gila

The U.S. Forest Service has issued a Notice of Intent to Impound Unauthorized Livestock in portions of the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. The notice said unauthorized livestock may be impounded by the USFS on or after Feb. 15, which could indicate the USFS will reach a final decision to shoot estray cattle in the area.

The area affected by the impound notice is the general site of aerial cattle gunning operations and comes on the heels of the USFS plan to shoot estray cattle in the area released in a Nov. 29, 2022, letter seeking public comment. According to that letter, the removal of the cattle is necessary to protect the habitat of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, including federally listed threatened and endangered species.


The USFS believes there may be a maximum of 150 head of cattle in the Gila Wilderness, an area of about 1,000 sections, however USFS has not made public any livestock counts to verify this estimate. Conversely, in the same area the elk population is estimated at over 5,000 head. To date, USFS has provided no evidence that this alleged environmental destruction is by livestock as opposed to elk.

According to the November letter, 756 cattle have been removed either through lethal or nonlethal means over the course of nine contracts for their removal. Camille Howes, USFS Forest supervisor noted that for every animal led out of the Wilderness, one dies or is euthanized during capture and removal efforts due to the remote location, rugged topography, and stress to the wild, uncooperative animals. The last aerial operation was conducted in February of 2022 when USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service conducted two days of aerial gunning, killing 65 head of cattle.

New Mexico Cattle Growers Association president elect Bronson Corn, told Western Ag Network’s Lane Nordlund the aerial gunning is a plan to remove 150 cattle from over half a million acres of wilderness. He said the USFS claims the cattle are damaging the riparian areas along the Gila River without evidence save for photos from the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group.


Corn said the carcasses will be left to decompose, which he called a blatant waste of beef in one of the nation’s poorest states with high incidences of food insecurity.

“Why are we shooting these cattle and leaving them out there to rot and not taking into considerations the real solutions we’ve come up with to get those cattle out of there,” he said. “We understand there’s a problem, there is a problem, but this problem was created by the Forest Service.”


Corn said the solutions proposed by the NMCGA and stakeholders have been disregarded by USFS. He said the cattle in question are not feral, they are estray cattle that were left behind. New Mexico is a fence out state, meaning the removal of the cattle falls to the landowner, in this case, the USFS. However, the New Mexico Livestock Board ultimately owns estray cattle by statute.

“Estray cattle belong to the New Mexico Livestock Board until you can prove they belong to someone else,” he said. “If they’re slick cattle, no marks, no ear marks, nothing like that, then the New Mexico Livestock Board takes possession of those cattle.”

According to statute, once the NMLB takes possession and is unable to determine ownership, they may sell the cattle and use the proceeds to cover the expenses associated with gathering the cattle.

Past NMCGA president Loren Patterson said the grazing allotment where the estray cattle are located was abandoned decades ago, the result of a family ranch going bankrupt. The bankruptcy, he said, was brought on by a lengthy lawsuit the family was embroiled in against the USFS. He said there have been unsuccessful contracted attempts to remove the cattle. USFS terminated grazing on the allotment and destroyed infrastructure, including fences and working facilities. Without grazing, the cattle can’t be gathered with another group and without fences or facilities, contractors have failed.

In February of 2022, USFS provided three days’ notice to the NMCGA of planned aerial gunning operations.

“We had very little time to prepare and I’m very proud of the work our president Loren Patterson has done with regard to all of the interviews and meetings and time he has put in to get this stopped,” Corn said. “The first time the Forest Service did it, they did for the simple fact that the Center for Biological Diversity was suing them for damages to riparian areas. Like I said, there’s 150 head on half a million acres so there’s not a lot of damage they could be doing. The only evidence has come from the Center for Biological Diversity.”


Corn said it appears the shooting is part of an effort to “clean up” the Gila Wilderness ahead of its 100th anniversary celebration planned for 2024. Part of the justification given by USFS is to remove non-native species and ease overgrazing. Corn draws a comparison between unauthorized feral horses, a non-native species numerous in New Mexico, and cattle and said if the USFS proposed aerial gunning of equine, the conversation would be much different.

He said he recognizes aerial operations can be an important part of predation control and if the USFS utilized qualified contractors to complete a gather of the majority of the cattle, that’s a far better solution than taking to the air and slaughtering large numbers, rather than just the outlaws and outliers.

“This isn’t a New Mexico problem, this is not an Arizona problem, this is a Western state problem,” he said. “We don’t want the Forest Service to decide this is a tool that they want to have in their tool bag for any occasion they feel they can use it.”

After the 2022 aerial gunning removal of cattle, a settlement was reached between USFS and the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association and other stakeholders to prevent the USFS from helicopter sniper operations. According to the NMCGA, they met monthly with the regulatory agency for New Mexico health and livestock identification, the New Mexico Livestock Board, and stakeholders to reach a long-term solution. Despite reaching an agreement that the estray cattle do not belong in the Wilderness, NMCGA said in a release that USFS has chosen to forgo stakeholder input by refusing to construct critical infrastructure, improve existing fencing, or employing individuals capable of humanely gathering and transporting the livestock.

Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-N.M., added language in July last year to a bill funding the Department of the Interior that would prevent the government from slaughtering feral cattle in New Mexico without consultation with local ranchers. The new language reads: “Cattle in the Gila National Forest — Prior to taking action on feral livestock on the Gila National Forest, the Forest Service is directed to consult and collaborate with local stakeholders on potential solutions and to consider possible consequences of such actions or inaction, including increased wolf activity and the feral livestock’s impacts on native vegetation, erosion, fish and wildlife habitat degradation, and water quality and quantity. The committee notes that such consultation and collaboration must be documented in writing to notice all parties involved.”

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