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Stewardship and killing cattle


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What is the best way to deal with wild cows in rural New Mexico?

Used with permission Robin Silver

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Wednesday, March 8th.

Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Feral cattle in the Southwest.

Ranchers in New Mexico are at odds with the federal government. The issue: how to capture and remove feral cattle from the state’s largest wilderness area.

The Forest Service wants to continue to use lethal methods to get rid of the animals. Ranchers believe there’s a better way.

BROWN: They do. I talked to one of those ranchers. And we’ll also hear from someone just as adamant on the other side.

New Mexico’s Gila National Forest was established in 1905. Three million acres of forested hills, rugged mountains, deep canyons and vast wilderness. The area goes largely untouched. But in the last year, the Gila Wilderness has been the center of controversy.

PODCASTER: Many thought that the forest service would back away from this lethal option…

COMMENTATOR: …shooting cattle from a helicopter on public lands, I think that’s an incredibly dangerous precedent.

LEGISLATOR: Last year we drafted a letter that the majority of the house members signed onto over what the United States Forest Service is doing over the Gila National Forest.

In February of 2022, the Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture conducted an aerial lethal-removal operation. A helicopter carrying a sharp shooter flew over portions of the Gila Wilderness and gunned down 65 feral cattle. Last month, the Forest Service resumed that operation, and 19 more wild cattle were shot from the air.

LOREN PATTERSON: It just kind of broke everybody’s heart that they would even consider doing such a thing.

That’s Loren Patterson, President of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. The organization represents 14-hundred ranching operations throughout the state.

LOREN PATTERSON: What we saw last year was the animals had their legs shot off. It’s not an instant kill. It can take hours, sometimes days for these animals to die.

The problem, Patterson says, started in the 1990’s when a fellow rancher operating within a region of the Gila wilderness went bankrupt and lost his grazing allotment. A grazing allotment is an area designated by the Forest Service for ranchers—granting them grazing rights on that land. When that rancher fell on hard times and lost the use of his grazing allotment he abandoned the cattle. Today descendants of those animals run wild. They’ve become a nuisance both to the health of the wilderness and to the public that want to use the land.

LOREN PATTERSON: This is a human management problem. It’s not the cattle, it's not their fault they’re in there, so to go in there and treat them in an inhumane way, I think we’re better than that.

Patterson says his organization wants the Forest Service to invest in infrastructure, like corrals and fences, that will keep the cattle from entering vulnerable areas.

The Forest Service declined my request for an interview, but issued this statement defending its lethal aerial operation. “The use of ground-based methods alone did not sustainably reduce the feral cattle population. The most efficient and humane way to deal with this issue is with the responsible lethal removal of the feral cattle.”

ROBIN SILVER: These are animals that are incredibly wild, they’re dangerous.

Robin Silver applauds the Forest Service’s decision. Silver is co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. Based in Arizona, the organization is dedicated to the preservation of imperiled and endangered species and their habitats—like the Gila wilderness. Silver got involved in the fight to remove the wild cattle three years ago.

ROBIN SILVER: I walked across the Gila Wilderness in response to years worth of complaints from our members and others about being charged by feral cows and by extensive damage to the streamside areas within the wilderness.

A professional wildlife photographer, Silver began documenting what he describes as the fallout from feral cattle grazing along the Gila river bank.

ROBIN SILVER: And so they denude the streams and rivers of the streamside vegetation.

And that eliminates necessary habitat for the fish and other water animals creating a ripple effect across the whole ecosystem. In July of 2020, Silver started tracking feral cattle in the Gila Wilderness. He remembers the day he stood just a stone’s throw away from a two-ton, jet-black bull.

ROBIN SILVER: As soon as he heard the camera click, he turned around and ran.

Silver says that experience demonstrates both how skittish and how dangerous the wild cattle are.

ROBIN SILVER: They attack the horses of the cowboys that are trying to round them up. At best they can get a rope around them.

He argues it also suggests at least some of the ranchers on the ground aren’t any more humane than the sharpshooters in the air.

ROBIN SILVER: Then they tie them to a tree until the cow becomes exhausted. The cows are thrashing the entire time. They’re usually hurt. And then they literally have to drag them out between 20 to 30 miles over rugged terrain, put them in a truck, take them to an auction yard and then to slaughter.

It’s unlikely Silver and Patterson will ever agree on the best way to remove the cattle. But both admit, while the animals don’t belong in that part of the Gila Wilderness, they are still God’s creation. Again, Loren Patterson.

LOREN PATTERSON: As far as I’m concerned, He’s giving me that calling on my own ranches. That’s probably the purpose-driven life I have is to care for His land and animals and as an industry and as an association, we all demand that of ourselves and we expect the Forest Service to live up to that expectation, too.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Myrna Brown.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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