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A federal judge has given the U.S. Forest Service the go-ahead to conduct a four-day operation of shooting unbranded or stray cattle from helicopters in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness.

This comes after an initial request for an emergency order to stop the cull was made by ranchers who argued that the culling of about 150 cows, due to begin on Thursday, would break federal laws and Forest Service regulations and potentially harm cattle owned by them. However, Judge James Browning dismissed the bid, stating that the ranchers were unlikely to succeed in the case’s merits. He also mentioned that of 300 cattle killed or removed over the past few decades, only one had been branded and that it was removed instead of killed.

The Forest Service, which said that feral cattle were causing damage to habitats and menacing hikers, had announced the cull last week. Andrew Smith, an attorney for the Forest Service, argued that blocking the cull would allow feral cow populations to rebound, negating last year’s efforts. Culling feral hogs and predators like coyotes through aerial hunting is common in the American West, but the practice of shooting cattle from above has received widespread protest.

The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association (NMCGA) filed a lawsuit on Tuesday alongside other ranching, farming, and business interests. NMCGA argued that aerial shooting puts privately owned cattle that may have strayed through broken fences or for water at risk. The association also claimed helicopter hunting was inefficient and inhumane and caused cattle to run, requiring shooters to fire multiple rounds before leaving them to die, sometimes days later. Last year, NMCGA sued the Forest Service over its last cull, leading to an out-of-court settlement. Ranchers said the agreement required the government to give the public 75 days’ notice before shooting feral cows from helicopters. They argued that the government only gave seven days’ notice this year.

Although the ranchers are disappointed that the court allowed the Forest Service’s plan, they have indicated their willingness to continue their legal battle. Jessica Blome, an attorney for the ranchers, said, “Our clients have a deep respect for the Gila National Forest and the public lands that it encompasses. The NMCGA remains committed to protecting private property rights and the rule of law.” The Forest Service has yet to comment on the court’s decision.


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