© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A cow that has gotten loose from its pen stands in the middle of Highway 10 in Winnie, Texas, U.S., August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
By Clark Mindock
(Reuters) -The U.S. Forest Service can go ahead with a plan to shoot dozens of feral cattle from helicopters in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness after a federal judge on Wednesday refused a request by ranchers for an emergency order to stop the cull.
Cattle ranchers and local business owners told U.S. District Judge James Browning earlier on Wednesday at a hearing in Albuquerque the four-day hunt of about 150 stray or unbranded cows, due to start on Thursday, would violate federal laws and Forest Service regulations and likely kill cows they own.
In denying the plaintiffs’ bid for the emergency order, Browning said they were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their case and that of the approximately 300 cattle removed or killed over the last several decades “only one has been branded, and it was removed rather than killed.”
Jessica Blome, an attorney for the ranchers, said they are “deeply disappointed that the court green lit” the plan.
The Forest Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Forest Service announced the hunt last week, the second in as many years, saying feral cows were damaging habitats and menacing hikers who visit the vast Southwestern national monument known for its mountain ranges and plunging, rock-walled canyons.
U.S. Department of Justice attorney Andrew Smith, representing the Forest Service, argued on Wednesday that blocking the cull would allow feral cow populations to “rebound, and last year’s efforts would be wasted.”
Aerial hunting of feral hogs and predators like coyotes is a common practice in the American West but efforts to gun down cattle from above have been met with protest.
The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association (NMCGA), which had filed a lawsuit on Tuesday alongside other ranching, farming and business interests, said aerial shooting puts at risk privately owned cattle that may have strayed through broken fences or to find water. That loss harms an industry already hard-hit by climate change and rising costs, it said.
Ranchers also said helicopter hunting is inefficient and inhumane, causing cattle to run and forcing shooters to pepper cows with multiple rounds before they are left to die, sometimes days later.
NMCGA sued the Forest Service over its last cull, resulting in an out-of-court settlement. The ranchers said that agreement requires the government to give the public 75 days’ notice before it shoots feral cows from helicopters. The government provided just seven days’ notice this year, they said.