Stray cattle are trespassing on New Mexico’s Valles Caldera National Preserve, park rangers say. Ranchers tell a different story.
The controversy came to a head last week when park managers initiated a roundup of cattle after fielding complaints from visitors and anglers. Cattle wandering onto the preserve from nearby grazing allotments increased over the dry summer months to what rangers called a “critical mass,” despite efforts of ranchers to gather their stock via horseback.
The situation is the result of miles of an aging and neglected fence separating the preserve and forested grazing pastures in northern New Mexico. Ranch Chris Lovato told the Associated Press he spend much of the summer gathering his cattle that wandered out of his grazing allotment on the Santa Fe National Forest in search of grass and water in a region hit hard by drought.
“It became a revolving door because 80% of the fence is down,” Lovato said.
New Mexico state law puts the burden of maintaining fences on the landowner if they want to keep neighbor’s livestock out. In this case, that would be the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Before Valles Caldera was turned over to the Park Service, the trust that managed the range maintained the fence.
But, the AP reports, officials at Valles Caldera say federal courts have upheld the principal that state fence-out laws are generally pre-empted by U.S. regulations requiring livestock owners to keep their animals off certain federal lands.
“While we will continue to do our part to maintain our boundary fences, there’s no obligation for the Park Service to fence out potential trespass livestock under state laws,” preserve Superintendent Jorge Silva-Banuelos said. “The adjacent livestock owners do have a role to play in the maintenance of their allotment fences that border the preserve.”
Preserve officials say they initiated the roundup to identify the cattle owners and give them the opportunity to claim their cattle, rather than issuing citations or fines. Ranchers, however, say the preserve gathered the cattle without giving notice, and that more than 300 cows, calves and some bulls were held in a corral without hay and little water for several days. One cow died, the AP reported, and ranchers said many animals were in bad shape.
Lovato made multiple trips to move eight loads of cattle after he was told he wouldn’t be allowed to herd them by horseback less than 2 miles back to his allotment.
“The federal government, instead of helping us, they’re just punishing us after what we faced this summer,” he said, referring to the challenges of the drought.