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New Mexico judge permits culling of wild cattle in Gila Wilderness

Inclement weather, part of a nationwide winter storm front, means the culling won't begin immediately.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Thanks to inclement weather, the culling of wild cattle in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness hasn’t yet begun, but a decision issued Wednesday by New Mexico District Court Judge James Browning means the operation could get underway any day now.

At stake are about 150 cattle, descendants of animals abandoned by a bankrupt rancher in the 1990s. While they have been wandering the wilderness for nearly 30 years, pretty much everyone seems to agree that they don’t belong there. The issue is how to get them out.

That’s pitted three agricultural groups, including the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, against the U.S. Forest Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which have sought to deal with the matter by shooting the cattle from helicopters.

Browning, in a 27-page court order issued Wednesday, permitted the culling to begin Thursday.

“No one disputes that the Gila Cattle need to be removed and are doing significant damage to the Gila Wilderness,” Browning wrote in his decision. “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 on February 23, 2023.”

Environmental groups, such as the Center for Biological Diversity have supported the culling.

“Feral, unbranded cattle have been destroying fish and wildlife habitat, overgrazing native vegetation, trampling stream banks, and polluting critical water sources within the Gila Wilderness for decades,” said the Center in a news release issued Wednesday. The organization said that culling the cattle will help preserve healthy streams and wildlife habitat.

But opponents argue that the culling sets a dangerous precedent and is needlessly cruel.

“We don’t want this, as cattle producers, to become a standard tool in dealing with stray livestock,” said Loren Patterson, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, said in a phone interview from Moriarty, New Mexico. “What’s to stop them from using it with feral horses or any other animals that don’t belong in the forests?”

Ideally, he said, they would prefer to see the Forest Service go in and set up temporary infrastructure that would allow the cattle to be rounded up, held briefly, and then potentially sold off. The Forest Service destroyed the pens and other infrastructure that existed when the cattle were abandoned back in the 1990s, he said.

“Our organization agrees the animals don’t need to be in there unmanaged,” said Patterson, who calls the situation a man-made problem. “We want zero cattle in there if they’re going to be unmanaged.”

Patterson’s organization, which represents about 14,000 ranches throughout New Mexico, argues too that the Forest Service failed to give 75-day notice for the culling, which would have allowed opponents or others with concerns to speak up. Based on a stipulation made June 30, 2022, the Forest Service agreed to the 75-day notice and sent out a letter on November 22, 2022. The plaintiffs, however, insist that was merely a scoping letter and not an actual notice.

Judge Browning disagreed.

“Further, the Forest Service sent the Scoping Letter directly to the Plaintiffs’ counsel on November 22, 2022, noting that the Plaintiffs of the 2022 Litigation were ‘being sent the scoping notice along with nearby permittees, neighbors, other stakeholders, and members of the general public that have expressed interest in receiving such notices,” Browning wrote in his decision.

Patterson takes issue with that, noting the decision memo about the actual commencement of the culling didn’t come out until February 16, just before a three-day holiday weekend. He said his organization will continue to press the issue.

The culling is expected to begin when safer weather conditions return.

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