USFS defends aerial gunning of New Mexico cattle
New Mexico Congresswoman Yvette Herrell asked the USDA pointed questions after the U.S. Forest Service and USDA Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service gunned down cattle on the Gila Forest and Wilderness from a helicopter. Herrell received a response from Michiko J. Martin, Regional Forester for the Southwestern Region Forest Service Regional Office in Albuquerque.
According to the letter, the Acting Gila National Forest Supervisor signed a Categorical Exclusion to approve the operation on Sept. 11, 2020. In February of 2021, the deputy regional forester signed a Minimum Requirements Decision Guide to approve the $65,896.19 helicopter operation in the Gila Wilderness, which was also authorized by the APHIS Wildlife Service’s regional director via a Categorical Exclusion.
Martin claims the Forest Service ensured coordination and communication with the New Mexico Livestock Board throughout the project, as well as during a recent gather contract, during which the state inspected cattle removed from the Gila National Forest. According to the letter, communication between the New Mexico Livestock Board and New Mexico Game and Fish began in late 2019, continuing throughout the planning and operation.
The operation resulted in the shooting of 65 head of “unauthorized/unbranded” cattle, all of which Martin said were shot only after APHIS made “intentional observation of each animal prior to engagement” and were found to carry no ear tags or brands. When the New Mexico Livestock Board visited the area following the operation and alerted the Forest Service to two carcasses left in the river, the Forest Service prioritized removal of the deceased cattle.
Martin said the Gila National Forest continues stakeholder outreach with regard to this operation as well as plans for removing the remaining livestock, which is estimated to be about 100 head. To date, 51 head have been removed; 32 died or had to be euthanized for safety; and 19 head were inspected by the Livestock Board and sold at auction. The current contract for removal expires in December 2022 and Martin said the USFS will continue to remove remaining cattle until 100 head are removed or the contract expires. At that point, the USFS will evaluate the number removed, whether additional cattle are present, and which steps will be taken.
Herrell called the shooting a short term fix with many potential severe consequences.
“Local stakeholders agree that removing cattle from the wilderness is the right thing to do, but taking lethal action was a step too far,” she said. “Shooting these cattle and leaving their carcasses behind, as the Forest Service did, attracts wolves to the area and put surrounding ranchers at risk of losing their livelihoods to wolf attacks. In addition, the Forest Service could not guarantee that these cows were indeed wild, raising the possibility of wrongly killing one of my constituents’ livestock. I was disappointed that Gov. Lujan Grisham decided to give her blessing to these proposals, which were opposed by the ranching community and many other concerned families in my district. I will continue to put pressure on the Forest Service to reverse course and take more prudent actions to humanely remove cattle from the wilderness area.”
As for Herrell’s concern about wolf depredation occurring as a result of carcasses left in the area, Martin responded that there are no wolf packs currently documented within the Gila Wilderness and no known packs are in the vicinity of the closure area established for the unauthorized/unbranded livestock operations.
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