Groups file lawsuit to stop aerial shooting of New Mexico cattle

calendar icon 22 February 2023
clock icon 3 minute read

The Humane Farming Association (HFA), the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association (NMCGA), and others have today jointly filed suit in US District Court for the District of New Mexico against the US Forest Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to prevent the inhumane aerial gunning of an estimated 150 cattle residing on the 560,000-acre Gila Wilderness Area. The wilderness area, located in southwest New Mexico, is located within the Gila National Forest.

Last year, the NMCGA filed a temporary restraining order in an effort to stop the Forest Service's plan to use aerial gunning to eliminate free-roaming cattle from the wilderness area, during which 65 cattle were shot at and killed from a helicopter. A stipulation resulting from last year's lawsuit required that the Forest Service provide the cattle growers and the public 75-days' written notice before future shooting commenced. Yet, this year, the Forest Service provided only one week's notice.

"No matter what the Forest Service claims, this is unadulterated animal cruelty," said the Humane Farming Association's national director, Bradley Miller. "These animals don't take the shots standing still – they run in fear from the helicopter chasing them. These are not clean kills; the cattle experience horrifically slow deaths. Their orphaned calves are left to starve or be killed by predators."

To conduct the killing, the Forest Service has contracted with the USDA's APHIS. That agency intends "to shoot as many as 150 cattle with high-powered rifles from a helicopter, leaving their carcasses strewn throughout New Mexico's Gila Wilderness," reads the new lawsuit. "This Court's intervention is necessary to put an immediate stop to this unlawful, cruel, and environmentally harmful action, both now and in the future."

The plaintiffs argue that, in addition to not complying with the 75-day notice provision, the Forest Service has no legal authority to carry out its aerial gunning plan, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. 

"Shooting violates the APA because it is not authorised by statute or regulation, exceeds the Forest Service's authority, and fails to follow the existing regulations for the removal of unauthorised cattle," says the suit. 

In addition, plaintiffs argue that, by proceeding without first conducting an environmental review of the significant harms to the wilderness ecosystem, the Forest Service is violating the National Environmental Policy Act. Because the Forest Service intends to leave all 150 dead and dying cattle in the wilderness to decompose, the government will cause catastrophic pollution of the Gila River and impermissibly interfere with the natural feeding behaviors of native wildlife.

The Forest Service's aerial gunning scheme has also been criticized by the New Mexico Livestock Board. Just last year, the board concluded that the aerial gunning of cattle was not in accordance with commonly accepted agricultural animal husbandry practices, and that such shooting "constitutes acts of animal cruelty" in violation of New Mexico law. 

Livestock Board members who observed three dead bulls after the aerial gunning reported that two of the dead bulls were found in the Gila River, one with a broken hind leg. Both bulls were found with multiple gunshot wounds in the head, neck, back, and sides, and "did not die a good death."

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