Taking the bull by its horns

Park rangers plan to shoot dozens of wild cows grazing on public land in New Mexico from a helicopter

A federal judge denied requests by local ranchers to delay the culling, saying the cows were doing significant damage to the local ecosystem
Cattle graze in southwestern New Mexico in an area similar to the Gila State forest.
Cattle graze in southwestern New Mexico in an area similar to the Gila State forest.
Photo: Lucy Nicholson (Reuters)
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A federal judge approved a plan for park rangers in New Mexico to shoot approximately 150 wild cows from a helicopter on Wednesday (Feb 22).

The livestock are descended from cattle that have grazed in the Gila National Forest since the 1970s, when their owner’s ranch went out of business. The forest is a 2-million-acre protected habitat in southwestern New Mexico.

The plan to cull the cows started after local environmentalists complained the animals were compromising water quality and damaging the local ecosystem. The US Forest Service, which governs the Gila Forest, agreed and developed a plan to fully eradicate the bovine population.

The New Mexico Cattle Grower’s Association and the Humane Farming Association then sued the Forest Service, saying the plan violated regulations and overstepped their authority.

Specifically, representatives for the ranchers argued these cows were still domesticated, and thus not feral, which meant the government could not use lethal force according to federal regulations. Ultimately, Judge James Browning disagreed, as the cows have no pedigree.

Park rangers plan to shoot the cows with high-powered rifles, aiming at the animals from the skies. After the cows are killed, the Forest Service plans to let them decompose, predicting up to 65 tons of carcasses will litter the area. The shooting could begin as soon as today (Feb 23.)

Cattle ranchers have had the right to graze their cows on some government-owned land since the 19th century, a cornerstone of the original Homestead Act. This case could set a precedent for how federal officials treat unbranded animals on publicly-owned land.

Where are the cattle grazing?

How much of the US is national land?

The U.S. government owns 28% of the land in the US, or 640 million acres, mostly concentrated in the West. In fact, only 4% of national land is found east of the Mississippi River.

The government land is mostly controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), with the US Forest Service and National Park Service also holding sizable chunks of the country.

Are ranchers allowed to use public land to graze their cattle?

American ranchers, and their cows, have a long history in land controlled by the BLM. Much of the land was initially acquired in the 19th century with the express purpose of being available to any cattle rancher for grazing, free of charge. The initiative was part of the Homestead Act that aimed to promote European settlements in the West.

Due to overgrazing, the US Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 which cordoned off specific grazing districts on public land and created new forms of regulation for ranchers who wanted to use public land.

The issue of public grazing has become increasingly politicized recently, most notably with the case of Cliven Bundy, a rancher in Nevada who the BLM fined more than $1 million dollars for grazing on federally-owned land in 2015.

Bundy refused to halt the grazing, setting off an armed standoff between local ranchers and federal officials, who eventually left the area. Years later, Bundy has still not paid any fines and continues to graze his cattle on the same public land.

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