SILVER CITY, N.M. (KRQE) – Ranchers are suing the feds to stop what they’re calling a “mass slaughter” of cattle in the Gila National Forest this week. 

The U.S. Forest Service announced its plan to shoot down more than 100 cattle roaming in places they shouldn’t be, saying they pose a threat to people and sensitive areas of the wilderness. But the president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association says he doesn’t believe the U.S. Forest Service has the authority to do it. “We know they have protocols on how to deal with unauthorized cattle and aerial gunning is not part of those protocols,” said Loren Patterson. 

Forest officials are planning to send snipers in helicopters on Thursday to shoot and kill roughly 150 cattle within the bounds of the wilderness area. In a press release, the Gila National Forest supervisor Camille Howes said “the feral cattle have been aggressive towards visitors, graze year-round, and trample streams and springs, causing erosion and sedimentation.”

But the plan is getting pushback from ranchers who say it’s difficult to identify branded cattle from the air. This has been a back-and-forth fight for years but this federal lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service is trying to block operations like this for good. It claims the forest service is obligated to give the public at least 75 days’ notice to shoot the cattle and in this case announced it just five days ago. 

It also includes documents and environmental impacts following the aerial shooting of unauthorized livestock a year ago. The lawsuit claims the feds have worsened the problem by destroying more than thirty miles of fencing while doing burns over the past year. Patterson explained, “We believe that those animals need to come out of there. We just think there’s an ethical way and then also its infrastructure, meaning new fences to keep cattle from ever getting back in there.”

The forest service also says the deceased cattle will be left onsite to naturally decompose, which according to Patterson, creates another issue for hikers and campers who will see the dead cattle throughout the forest including in or near the Gila River.

If a judge doesn’t block the operation it is expected to continue through Sunday. KRQE reached out to the forest service for comment but the agency says it doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits.