Preventing a Precedent: USFS/APHIS Aerial Gunning of Cattle in Gila to Begin Feb. 23

SILVER CITY, N.M., February 20, 2023 — The U.S. Forest Service announced they will begin aerial gunning of cattle in the Gila Wilderness beginning Thursday, February 23. Stakeholders and members of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association met briefly with officials from the USFS and Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)-Wildlife Services where it was announced that lethal removal of estray cattle in the Gila Forest and Wilderness Areas would occur.

According to a release from NMCGA, Elaine Korman, Acting Regional Forester for the Southwestern Region, told those in attendance the agency’s grounds for the lethal removal is their concern for public safety as the cattle are not domesticated and not authorized to be in the area.

USFS has issued a closure order for the area beginning Feb. 20, with four days of gunning beginning Feb. 23. USFS and APHIS estimate 50 to 150 head of cattle remain, with both bulls and females present.

Watch: NMCGA's Loren Patterson, Attorney Karen Budd-Falen and Western Ag Network's Rachel Gabel and Lane Nordlund discuss the shooting of cattle in the Gila Wilderness.  

Loren Patterson, president of the NMCGA called the decision offensive, especially after a year of discussions to prevent further killing.

“Today’s meeting proved the Service is willing to bypass all stakeholder input and effectively turn their backs on sound reasoning,” he said. “Of the six groups represented (in the meeting) today, the Forest Service is the only one in favor of aerial operations.”

In the 17-page decision memo, USFS said the issue of “feral” cattle, which is the USFS designation of the cattle to be removed, began when a grazing permittee abandoned cattle on the Redstone Allotment within the Wilderness. In the 1990s, USFS issued a new grazing permit for that allotment to another permittee to manage the cattle with the goal of addressing “the feral cattle situation.”

Due to non-compliance, the term grazing permit was suspended in 1996 and canceled in 1998. From 1996 to 1998, the permittee removed several hundred cattle, though “a population” remained. Since 1998, USFS has issued nine gather contracts that resulted in the removal of an additional 211 cattle. In February 2022, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wildlife Services (APHIS) conducted an aerial operation where 65 feral cattle were lethally removed.

According to the decision, the work of removing them by capturing and herding them out of the wilderness is hazardous to the feral cattle, as well as to the contractor’s employees due to the wild, uncooperative nature of the animals and the remote and difficult terrain. Additionally stress or injury has resulted in about half of captured cattle dying or requiring euthanasia before they could be herded or led out of the wilderness.

In the memo, the cattle are referred to as “an invasive, exotic species” and said the feral cattle have negatively impacted fish and wildlife habitats including habitats for several federally threatened and endangered species. According to USFS, critical habitat for the following federally endangered or threatened species is found within the project area: southwest willow flycatcher, narrow-headed garter snake, Gila chub, loach minnow, spikedace, and Mexican spotted owl. Except for the Mexican spotted owl, critical habitat for all other federally listed species within the Gila Wilderness is found within or adjacent to aquatic or riparian areas. Additionally, occupied Gila trout habitat is found within the project area. 

In the decision, Camille Howes, Forest Supervisor said during lethal removal efforts, the Forest will work with USDA APHIS-Wildlife Services to conduct lethal removal through aerial and ground-based operations. Aerial removal efforts are expected to take place over one or more 7-day periods annually until objectives are met, with other follow-up efforts later as needed. The first operation period is expected to begin on or around February 22, 2023. All lethally removed or euthanized cattle would be left on site to naturally decompose, unless within or adjacent to a waterbody, designated hiking trail, or culturally sensitive location. A wilderness minimum requirements analysis has been completed and approved allowing for the treatments including the low-level helicopter flights.

NMCGA members and stakeholders have previously expressed concern regarding carcasses being left where they are shot encouraging livestock depredation by the Mexican wolf population. The interagency field team asked to address the concern has no evidence that wolf scavenging on cattle carcasses has any known effect on wolf depredation rates on livestock. Howes said following the 2022 aerial gunning, two wolves were attracted to the carcasses, stayed in the area for several months, then moved back into their normal areas without preying on live cattle.

Howes wrote that while any cattle gathered will be brand inspected according to Forest Service regulations, though it is not required that these procedures be followed because the feral cattle are not “livestock” as “animals of any kind kept or raised for use or pleasure,” because they are no longer domesticated animals being “kept or raised” by any individual.

NMCGA and USFS reached a settlement in 2022 that mandated that NMCGA and stakeholders shall receive 75 days’ notice of intent to lethally remove livestock from the area. When questioned, Kohrman replied “that was for lawyers to discuss.” Kohrman also said in addition to evidence of riparian area damage, bank trampling, and overgrazing on stream banks dating back to 2020, they have also received accounts of a bull charging visitors to the Wilderness. She indicated they will attempt identification of brands from the air, said in the case of cow/calf pairs, both will be killed, and they will provide GPS coordinates for the location of each kill. The meeting ended with Kohrman reportedly telling the stakeholders “there was nothing that could be done to stop the aerial gunning of ‘not domesticated’ cattle” in the Gila Forest and Wilderness.

In a statement, NMCGA said they will take appropriate action to stop this unlawful killing as the Service refuses to follow law and is clearly determined to violate it. The Service’s plan to shoot estray cattle violates their own regulations. Their reference of 36 CFR 262.10, in the recent Impound Notice to allotment owners adjacent to the Gila Wilderness, does not give them authority to proceed with shooting as first step. Their actions will criminally violate New Mexico State Statute 30-18-1(j), a law on animal cruelty. APHIS-Wildlife Service, who is under contract with the U.S. Forest Service, violates this law by aerially shooting livestock.


Western Landowners Alliance issued a statement, pointing out that stakeholders offered a collaborative and humane solution to the problem of unauthorized cattle that was rejected in favor of aerial gunning.

“Everyone agrees the unauthorized cattle need to be removed from the vacant allotment. However, it is deeply disappointing that the agency chose to proceed with another round of aerial gunning, which last year left dead and dying livestock scattered in and along the river," said WLA’s Executive Director, Lesli Allison.

The statement said this is not a way to manage land, livestock or relationships with the many diverse stakeholders in multiple use public lands and it is not a model that should be replicated or scaled and as such it is not a solution. They expressed their hope the USFS will consider alternative approaches in the future. 

Source: Rachel Gabel, The Fence Post Magazine and Western Ag Network