There are issues certain to surface each Legislative session in Montana, and this week was an onslaught of many of those familiar themes wrapped in new packages for the 2017 session. We dealt with bison, animal confiscations, water and regulations.
As we approach the transmittal deadline next week, bills are starting to get pushed through and the pace is moving more quickly, which means we all need to being paying close attention to these issues that matter most to Montana agriculture.
HOUSE BILL 419 - REVISE REQUIREMENTS FOR SALE OR TRANSFER OF WILD BISON.
Sponsored by Rep. Willis Curdy (D) HD 98, Missoula. Heard in House Agriculture Committee Thursday, Feb. 16.
In 1956, there were 124,000 livestock herds affected by brucellosis nation-wide. In 1992, that number was down to 700. Today, that number is in the single digits (according to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), thanks to an aggressive push by the livestock industry to eradicate the disease.
Reservoirs of the disease remain in wildlife populations in the greater Yellowstone area, so while the livestock industry has worked hard to nearly eliminate brucellosis, the threat remains. The bison population in the Greater Yellowstone Area is approximately 50 percent positive for brucellosis.
House Bill 419 would remove the requirement that bison coming out of Yellowstone National Park and the Designated Surveillance Area (DSA) must be certified brucellosis free before they can be sold or transferred to another entity. This bill would allow the moving and transfer of Yellowstone National Park bison before they are declared brucellosis free. This poses a major disease threat to the state of Montana.
Montana hasn’t had an infection outside the Designated Surveillance Area (DSA) since it was implemented a decade ago, which is the only reason our state has maintained its brucellosis-free status. Losing that status would have a severe economic impact on live animal markets and beef export markets. Brucellosis is a very serious disease for livestock, wildlife and humans. This bill is simply unacceptable, unscientific and reckless.
SENATE BILL 203: REVISE LAWS RELATED TO BOARDING ANIMALS
Sponsored by Sen. Nels Swandal (R) SD 30, Wilsall. Heard in Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, Feb. 16.
There aren’t any individuals or organizations who feel more passionately against animal cruelty than agriculturalists. Farmers and ranchers care for and respect animals with great reverence; their livelihood depends on it.
While this bill seeks to provide a way to pay for the care of animals that have been confiscated due to cruelty claims, we don’t see it as a solution to the problem it was created to address, and it also comes with negative consequences for livestock and working animal owners.
Senate Bill 203 would allow animals to be seized by law enforcement when an accusation of animal cruelty is made. It requires the owner of the seized animals to post a renewable 30-day bond to pay for the care of the animals. If that bond cannot be paid, the ownership of the animals is forfeited to the county.
While we understand and sympathize that these cases can be costly to the counties they are being tried in, it doesn’t appear this law would do anything more to truly remedy that situation. What it would do, however, is take away an individuals’ due process.
This means that if someone who is unfamiliar with healthy, normal animal husbandry practices makes an unfounded accusation, under this law, an individual’s animals could be confiscated before the owner is proven guilty. This bill does include a provision that excludes cattle, sheep and swine, but there are other animal species not named, including chickens, goats, guard dogs, etc. This provision could be stricken at any time in the future, which would open the door to dangerous takings of private property.
There are better ways this could be done that would truly protect animal welfare and lower the counties’ risk for financial burden, such as requiring a speedy trial so animals would be in custody for a shorter time, or allowing a lien being placed on a convicted guilty party’s private property. Farm Bureau member’s policy opposes this bill.
SENATE BILL 155: PROHIBIT LOCAL GOVERNMENT REGULATION OF AGRICULTURE AND VEGETABLE SEEDS
Sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang (R) SD 17, Malta. Passed out of Senate Agriculture, Livestock & Irrigation Committee. Will be heard on the Senate Floor on Monday, Feb. 20.
This is an important bill to Montana agriculture that needs support from the farmers and ranchers it will impact. It’s being referred to as “the seed bill,” and its intent is to make seed laws consistent with fertilizer laws in the state of Montana. Currently, only state government can regulate fertilizer in Montana and it makes sense for seeds to be similarly regulated.
It’s important to protect farmers and ranchers from a patchwork of regulations. It’s common for land ownership to cross multiple county lines, which means farmers and ranchers often do business in different communities. Having varying regulations from county to county would make farming and ranching in Montana very cost prohibitive and would threaten the vitality of our state’s largest industry.
Most importantly, Farm Bureau member policy recognizes the importance of conserving our most valuable natural resources: our land and water. While opponents have tried to argue we are limiting local control, MFBF strongly believes it should be the sole decision of the individual grower to decide what types of crops, growing methods and technologies best suite their situation. We support providing the freedom for farmers and ranchers to respond to market demands and not be held captive by burdensome local regulation.
HOUSE BILL 432: CLARIFY WATER RIGHT NOT ABANDONED IS CONVEYANCE DISRUPTED
Sponsored by Rep. Brad Hamlett (D) HD 23, Cascade. Heard in House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday, Feb. 15.
This bills would establish that a disruption of a means of conveyance is not an intent to abandon a water right. In laymen’s terms: if there is a flood and your irrigation ditch gets silted in or washed out, or head gate gets washed out or plugged, and the water user doesn’t get it cleaned for a while, it’s not an intent to abandon.
While it’s a well-intended bill, it’s also redundant to existing law, so Farm Bureau members’ policy does oppose this bill. We already have very clear abandonment statute in Montana water law, and this bill does not put any sideboards or criteria for a timeframe that one would have to exercise their water right to prove that it is not abandoned.
Under current abandonment statute, if a water rights holder stops exercising their right for a period of ten successive years, and there was water available for use during that time, that constitutes abandonment of that right. House Bill 432 would potentially take the teeth out of this abandonment statute.
This would be problematic if, for example, your neighboring property changes hands, and the new owners clean out a ditch that has been filled in for the past 30 years. They could claim that is was put out of use due to a disruption, and start running water down it without applying for a new water right. This would potentially be detrimental to current water right holders, and the legal means to deal with this issue already exists.
Chelcie Cargill is Montana Farm Bureau Federation’s Director of State Affairs and a fifth-generation rancher from Melville, Montana. Chelcie can be contacted at (406) 930-2299 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Nicole is the Director of National Affairs and also a rancher from Miles City, Montana. Nicole can be contacted at (406) 951-2429 or email@example.com. The Montana Farm Bureau Federation is a non-partisan, non-profit, grassroots organization that represents 22,000 member families in Montana.