Animal ag's stake

MEDINA, N.D. -- Jason Schmidt doesn't want the Humane Society of the United States to have any influence on animal laws in the state of North Dakota.

Jason Schmidt
Jason Schmidt of Medina, N.D., is president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association. His ranch has been in the family since the 1930s and is just south of the Crystal Springs, N.D.,exit on Interstate 94. (Mikkel Pates, Agweek)

MEDINA, N.D. -- Jason Schmidt doesn't want the Humane Society of the United States to have any influence on animal laws in the state of North Dakota.

The president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, Schmidt says his organization is opposed to a ballot initiative -- supported by HSUS, among others -- that would make animal cruelty a felony in the state.

"It would be our preference that it not be on the ballot," Schmidt says. "If it is, we'll have to change our plans and step things up." The board hasn't been asked to financially oppose

the measure.

When his organization learned of the HSUS involvement in an animal cruelty initiative in North Dakota, it piqued its interest.


"We're encouraging people not to sign it. There was work in the past on stiffening some of the penalties for animal cruelty. We're continuing to work on that. We have a group of stakeholders and other partners working on it."

On the flip side of the coin, the NDSA is backing a separate measure, put forth by the North Dakota Farm Bureau, which seeks to protect "modern farming practices." That is a constitutional measure, and in part is a defensive measure against intrusion by groups such as HSUS.

HSUS involvement

Schmidt, who ranches with four generations near Medina, N.D., where his family has lived since the 1930s, says ranchers have reason to be concerned.

"We've been able to sit back and listen to what other states and cattlemen across the country have had to say and learn from what's gone on," Schmidt says. "We're fortunate that we're later in the game and see some of their wins in other parts of the country."

The Stockmen's Association perked up its ears when HSUS officials held meetings across the state on the topic. The administrator and owner of the Internet domain name for the proponents of the measure is owned by HSUS.

"Although they don't show their face on the surface, when you peel back a couple of layers, they're there in force," he says. The HSUS has had articles in the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota and in San Francisco publications, "bragging about their efforts to change that in North Dakota," because North Dakota is one of the three states that doesn't have a felony penalty for animal abuse.

Schmidt thinks the place to deal with animal welfare is in the state legislature. "We're not denying that people need to be punished when they do harm to animals, we just feel it's a better approach to deal with the people who are here and have a candid debate, open and in front of the public and write the language that suits our people."


A North Dakota way?

It doesn't comfort Schmidt to know that the promoters of the animal cruelty ballot measure expressly have said it doesn't apply to animal agriculture -- livestock.

"They did make an effort to create the illusion that there were some exemptions in this initiated measure," Schmidt says. "But they also included horses in the three species that they're targeting. Not only are they not covering all species, but they use really inflammatory language in the opening paragraph of their initiated measure.

"We think some of that language -- if you have a staff of lawyers of more than 50 people (as HSUS does) -- could easily make the argument, and try and extrapolate that language into the cattle sector and into the harvesting of cattle." He says the language is designed for an emotional effect. "Most people wouldn't make the connection between that and how cattle are harvested," he says.

Members of the stockmen's group attended the organizational meetings for the measure, to hear what leaders were saying about the motivations for the effort.

"It was stated at some of their meetings, when people wanted to do more than what they actually had in this initiative, the HSUS people at the meetings stated, Let's just get this passed, we'll fix it later," he says. "That's a red flag for us." Schmidt says he knew of three organization/information meetings in the western part of the state and three in the eastern part of the state, run by two people from the HSUS staff. The stockmen's group learned about them through social media connections, and through the state veterinarians meeting.

'A red flag'

Schmidt says he thinks North Dakota promoters of the cruelty law seem to be "well-meaning people," and some of their goals are fine. "We just think they're a little naïve in how they're going about this and who they're getting involved with," he says. "They're probably not seeing the whole picture in the background, and that's what scares us."


The NDSA thinks that if there are new penalties for animal cruelty, they should come through the legislative process, and with the exemptions for agriculture spelled out in law for agricultural practices and rodeos, in particular.

"We'd much rather deal with the legislature and deal with it annually if you need to clean up something. A lot more open debate and clear thinking at the table," Schmidt says.

The stockmen are represented on a "working group" that came up with a proposed animal cruelty penalty law in the 2011 Legislature. The group included veterinarians and others. The final bill was 14 pages and went farther than the working group had proposed, so the association and some other ag groups backed away from it and it failed.

"We thought it would be OK to study it in the interim," Schmidt says. "A study (proposal) was defeated in the Legislature. It didn't make it out of the committee. The legislators didn't hear constituents coming to them with cases for it."

Schmidt denies that the "ag groups stopped" any state law penalties in 2011, but says legislators were "a little cautious" of new laws.

Otherwise, two sessions ago, the stockmen's group was in favor of the North Dakota State Department of Agriculture creating a staff field investigator in the state veterinarian's office to deal with large animal mistreatment cases across the state. In 2011, the group was in favor of creating a Livestock Stewardship Initiative position, which is now filled at North Dakota State University in Fargo. The position is a liaison between the producer and the consumer to "try to get ahead of this stuff," Schmidt says.

If the initiated amendment is defeated, the Stockmen's Association will support new penalties for animal cruelty and definitions in the 2013 Legislature, Schmidt says. "Now that we know that there is some sentiment out there and they have targeted us, it lights your fire to revisit the project," he says.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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