The vision of flying wild cattle out of southern California's rugged desert as if they were soldiers being lifted out of enemy territory strikes rancher Bill Tullock as silly. ``To me that's an utter waste of time,'' says Mr. Tullock, a Ramona cattleman and neighbor to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park about two hours east of here.
Yet within a year, if the California Cattleman's Association gets its way, helicopter-borne cowboys will sweep through the Anza-Borrego desert, shoot the creatures with chemical darts, and airlift them out of remote canyons. The goal is to try to prevent the cattle from further damaging the park's flora and fauna.
Estimates for the cost of the airlift run from $20,000 to $30,000, compared with about $5,000 the desert park rangers say it would cost to shoot the cattle.
But ranchers were aghast at the park staff's proposal last summer to get rid of the cattle -- permanently. Shooting cows in California is a felony, and the cattle industry is itself somewhat of a ``sacred cow.''
``Never before has anyone proposed shooting livestock,'' says Leo Johnson, of the Cattleman's Association. ``It used to be, if we knew of anyone shooting cattle, we'd hang 'em.''
Some ranchers even contend that wild cattle don't exist. They say that every cow living in the sprawling 600,000-acre desert park bears a brand from a neighboring ranch.
``There's no such thing as wild cattle in California -- they belong to somebody,'' says Del Pedro, with the bureau of livestock identification in the state Department of Food and Agriculture. ``What they are is stray.''
Ranchers say airborne sharpshooters could not discern ranch brands, while taking aim from a helicopter whirling several hundred yards away. ``How are they going to tell if they're wild or not? Quite often after a brand is on for a period of time, the brands heal up and hair over,'' Mr. Johnson says.
But state park managers are desparate to stem the ecological damage that about 80 cows are causing in the protected wilderness.
Their chief concern is the continued existence of Anza-Borrego's 400 bighorn sheep. Two million of the majestic mountain sheep roamed the West before settlers arrived, but only 40,000 remain -- the victims of rampant shooting, urbanization, and domestic livestock disease.
``We don't want cattle anywhere near the bighorn sheep,'' says Mark Jorgensen, Anza-Borrego park naturalist. ``We just want them out of here.''
Mr. Jorgensen says the cattle disturb the nesting areas of several birds, infect the sheep with an ``AIDS-like disease,'' and leave unsightly ``cow plops'' that mar the wilderness experience for tens of thousands of hikers and campers.
Over the years, hired cowboys have ridden horseback down the steep sides of cactus-covered canyons to rope the cattle and drag them out. Once, hoping to lure the cattle into captivity, the rangers built a trap baited with alfalfa. But both methods failed, prompting park managers to push for laws to legalize killing cattle that threaten native wildlife.
In August, park staff members contacted the office of state Sen. Robert Presley, a Riverside Democrat and chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee, to see if he would sponsor legislation exempting the cattle from strict laws protecting California's oldest and most venerable industry.
Jeff Arthur, one of Presley's assistants, says the shooting proposal was ``quickly abandoned'' this fall, as soon as the ranchers got wind of the idea. Instead, the cattlemen's association and Food and Agriculture officials met with park staff members in October to work out the airlift.
Tentative negotiations could be scotched if the state agencies fail to come up with another $15,000 in 1986 to match existing money in the state Department of Parks and Recreation budget, already allocated for the live removal.
The debate over so-called ``feral'' animals, escaped goats, pigs, and cattle that have adopted the hardiness of wild animals, rages in other parts of the state and around the nation.
Environmentalists say feral animals spread disease to wild animals, usurp the native species' food and water, destroy delicate environments, and multiply unchecked in the absence of natural predators.
On San Clemente Island off the southern California coast, half a dozen plants, birds, and reptiles have landed on the endangered species list because of trampling by the island's feral goats. At Death Valley National Monument northeast of here, thousands of feral burros competing for bighorn sheep's food and water have been rounded up for adoption.
Even without rancher opposition, the shooting proposal probably would have been blocked by well-organized groups of animal lovers, such as Cleveland Amory's Fund for Animals. This group defeated the planned execution of wild goats on San Clemente Island and burros at Death Valley, by pushing for costly airlifts and transplantation programs instead.
Though Jorgensen concedes the helicopter search will cover more of the treacherous terrain than horses, he says a few elusive cattle will remain -- and multiply.
``Whatever method we come down to, there will be a few out there still alive. Then it comes down to the point of what are you going to do? It's a felony to shoot one,'' he says. In spite of these protestations, it doesn't appear likely the state penal code will change.
``We've had cattle in California since the Spanish land grants,'' says Johnson. ``The cattle business is probably one of the oldest businesses in the state. When you propose shooting them, it's almost sacrilegious.''