Last spring, a chopper banked and rounded a towering rocky outcrop in the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico. It is incredibly rough terrain with towering rock walls and deep coulees, a river snaking through it. As the chopper rose over the last ridge and dropped below into the river bottom, the snipers took their positions. They were government gunmen in a USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) helicopter.
The cattle came into view, though there was little time to count them from the air before they crashed through intense brush seeking cover. When a bullet hit a black bull, he fell near the riverbank with the contents of his rumen spilled from his gut. Another lay in the river, his front leg contorted wildly at an unnatural angle where the bullet had shattered his leg, his wide head beneath the water. The chopper dipped and banked to find another group of cattle with this one dead or scattered.
When someone made their way horseback into the area following the aerial gunning, they found and photographed dead and bloated bulls in the waters of the Gila River. Before they found the calf, they heard it calling for its mother, who they assumed was one of the carcasses laying on the ground. When the U.S. Forest Service concluded their two-day operation and left the 558,000-acre Gila Wilderness behind them, 65 cattle had been gunned down.
The Forest Service issued a letter on Nov. 17, 2022, proposing another round of aerial gunning of cattle in the Gila National Forest. The comment period closed Jan. 9, 2023.
Though aerial gunning of stray cattle in the Gila Wilderness of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico may seem far removed from many cattle operations here in Colorado, Karen Budd-Falen said the precedent that could be set is a dangerous one.
Budd-Falen, a Cheyenne attorney and former Deputy Solicitor for Wildlife and Parks in the Department of the Interior, represented the New Mexico Stock Growers Association last February when the group and others filed a complaint in federal district court in New Mexico to prevent the U.S. Forest Service from gunning cattle from helicopters. She was among those who submitted comments this year, hers on behalf of the New Mexico Federal Lands Council.
Groups opposing the aerial gunning plan contend the USFS has the authority to gather and impound unauthorized livestock, not shoot them; the carcasses left to rot represent not only a reckless waste of beef, but condition predators, including the Mexican wolf, to rely on cattle as a food source; the aerial gunning plan requires a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review which hasn’t been completed; aircraft is prohibited in the Wilderness Area as per the Wilderness Act; and the Scoping Notice contains significant factual errors. All of these points aside, aerial slaughter is cruel and seems more like a movie plot penned to turn viewers’ stomachs than a federal government operation.
Perhaps the most damning point is brought forth by the Western Caucus members when they point out that they do understand the need to remove unauthorized cattle, the USFS exacerbated the problem when they refused to issue grazing permits, taking the ranchers off the landscape who previously maintained fences and the landscape and prevented cattle from straying.
Much of the issue boils down to repeated litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity that claim cattle are solely responsible for damaging riparian areas. Prior to the 2022 aerial gunning, Budd-Falen said during a phone conference between USFS and various stakeholder groups, including cattle industry groups, USFS was asked how they determined cattle were solely responsible for the alleged damage, not elk or other wildlife. USFS told the callers they did not know that and were relying upon photos provided by the CBD.
In New Mexico, stray cattle are ultimately the property of the Livestock Board and the state of New Mexico, making even strays someone’s property. USFS has said only unbranded cattle will be shot and I’ve never tried to read brands through the scope of an AR-10 while in a helicopter, but it seems challenging.
The precedent set forth is terrifying.
What if in Colorado stray cattle on public land were gunned down and left to rot? What if in Colorado wild horses found in areas where they’re not authorized were gunned down from a helicopter? The comparison isn’t perfect and there is undoubtedly less information before me than before the USFS, however, the lack of stakeholder input, the lack of news coverage, and the plain waste and cruelty of this should make you shudder. It should prompt you to pay attention moving forward so you are aware the next time a chopper rounds that rocky wall and drops down to allow sharp shooters a better angle.
Rachel Gabel writes about agriculture and rural issues. She is assistant editor of The Fence Post Magazine, the region’s preeminent agriculture publication.