ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A U.S. district judge on Wednesday cleared the way for federal officials to move ahead with plans to take to the air and shoot dozens of wild cattle in a rugged area of southwestern New Mexico.
Ranchers had sought a delay, arguing that the potential mass slaughter of as many as 150 “unauthorized” cows on public land was a violation of federal regulations and amounted to animal cruelty.
After listening to arguments that stretched throughout the day, Judge James Browning denied the request, saying the ranchers failed to make their case. He also said the U.S. Forest Service is charged with managing the wilderness for the benefit of the public, and the operation would further that aim.
“No one disputes that the Gila cattle need to be removed and are doing significant damage to the Gila Wilderness,” Browning wrote. “The court does not see a legal prohibition on the operation. It would be contrary to the public interest to stop the operation from proceeding.”
Plans by the Forest Service call for shooting the cattle with a high-powered rifle from a helicopter and leaving the carcasses in the Gila Wilderness. It was estimated by attorneys for the ranchers that 65 tons of dead animals would be left in the forest for months until they decompose or are eaten by scavengers.
Officials closed a large swath of the forest Monday and were scheduled to begin the shooting operation Thursday.
The New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, individual ranchers and the Humane Farming Association filed a complaint in federal court Tuesday, alleging that agency officials were violating their own regulations and overstepping their authority.
The complaint stated that court intervention was necessary to put an immediate stop to “this unlawful, cruel, and environmentally harmful action, both now and in the future.”
The ranchers had 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.
“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, told the judge.
The Gila National Forest issued its final decision to gun down the wayward cattle last week amid pressure from environmental groups that have raised concerns that cattle are compromising water quality and habitat for other species as they trample stream banks in sensitive areas.
Much of the debate during Wednesday's hearing centered on whether the animals were unauthorized livestock or feral cows, as the Forest Service has been referring to them.
Ranchers said the cattle in question were the descendants of cows that legally grazed the area in the 1970s before the owner went out of business. They pointed to DNA and genetic markers, saying the temperament of the animals doesn't mean they cease to be domesticated livestock.
As defined in Forest Service regulations, unauthorized livestock refers to any cattle, sheep, goats or hogs that are not authorized by permit to be grazing on national forest land. The regulations calls for an impoundment order to be issued and the livestock rounded up, with lethal action being a final step for those that aren't captured.
Despite issuing such an order earlier this month, the agency argued it wasn't required to follow the removal procedures outlined by the regulations because the cattle don't fit the definition of livestock since they aren't domesticated or being kept or raised by any individual.
Government attorney Andrew Smith said the cows have no pedigree.
“So it does make a difference what these cows are. They're multigenerations of wildness going on,” he said.
The judge agreed.
Smith also argued that Congress has charged the Forest Service with protecting national forest land and that eradicating the cattle would put an end to decades of damage. He said previous gathering efforts over the decades only put a dent in the population but that an aerial shooting operation in 2022 was able to take out 65 cows in two days.
Had the project been delayed, Smith suggested that the population would rebound and last year's effort would be wasted.
McGuire countered that Congress conferred authority on the Forest Service to make rules and regulations to protect and preserve the forest, not a license for the agency to do anything it wants.