He’s still out there ridin’ fences
Still makes his livin’ with his rope
As long as there’s a sunset,
he’ll keep ridin’ for the brand
You just can’t see him from the road.
Tracy and Donna Hunt operate the MW Cattle Company near Newcastle. More than a business, it is a way of life. Donna’s family has been pushing cows for three generations. Her grandfather first purchased land there in 1926.
The Hunts are the kind of folks who make Wyoming what it is. They are rooted in a family and community that is invested in the land. Involvement in state and local governance is not “politics.” It is simply an extension of raising their family and caring for their community.
Tracy has served in numerous elected positions. He has also served 20 years as Weston County Commissioner. Donna was the first female commissioner in Weston county. Their son, Hans, has been serving in the state House of Representatives for nearly a decade.
Despite many changes in technology, the Hunts still saddle up to go to work. For them, the expression, “ride for the brand,” is literal. For nearly a century, they have worked cattle like their grandfathers. This is not driven by nostalgia. It is driven by on-the-ground practicalities.
Their ranch encompasses mile-long pastures and sprawling vistas from Wyoming to South Dakota. When it’s time for market, they typically go to the sale barn at Torrington. There, buyers from Nebraska, South Dakota and surrounding states come together to listen to the chatter of auctioneers where beef on the hoof is converted to cash.
Recently, the Hunts were forced to join in a lawsuit against the federal government. Represented by Harriet Hageman, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate, they joined the Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) and Kenny and Roxy Fox of Belvidere, South Dakota to take the USDA to court.
It was a hassle that should never have happened. All parties to the suit had only recently completed a years-long process of updating the rules governing “Traceability of Livestock Moving Interstate” (2013 Final Rule). This rule, in compliance with multiple federal laws, had gone through a tedious process of negotiation, legal review, public comment, revision and final publication before it went into effect on March 11, 2013.
As the name implies, these federal rules are particularly impactive on cattle operations that span state lines. That’s why the Foxes and the Hunts had a special interest. But the rules also impact virtually every ranch in Wyoming for the simple reason that Wyoming has no meat-packing plants within her borders. As a result, a large percentage of cattle grown in Wyoming will need to cross state lines at some point on the way to market.
When the same herd of cattle winters in Wyoming and spends the summer in the sprawling pastures of South Dakota, a small change in federal rules can make a huge difference in the bottom line. Just as important, federal rules on the transport of cattle across state lines can put a gigantic governmental thumb on the scale that favors operators whose cattle never need to cross state lines over those that do.
If you are unable to understand how such arcane rules adversely impact cattle growers, don’t feel bad. You and I are in the same boat. In fact, so are most of the bureaucrats that work in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). That’s why the “public comment” process is so important.
Governmental regulations that are tone deaf to realities on the ground are more than a nuisance. They can force a family off the land. That’s why the document posted on the USDA website this April was so troubling. Without public input APHIS published a “Fact Sheet” entitled, “Advanced Disease Traceability: A Plan to Achieve Electronic Identification of Cattle and Bison” (2019 RFID Plan).
This decree unilaterally required some, but not all, cattle growers to transition from brands, tattoos and ear tags to the new and untested technology of radio frequency identification (RFID). This technology had been discussed at length during the process that formulated the 2013 Final Rule. It was adopted as one of the legal alternatives for identifying livestock but attempts to mandate its use were rejected.
So, when the 2019 Fact Sheet claimed that it was now mandatory, it was in direct violation of the 2013 Final Rule. The lawsuit filed on October 3, 2019, alleges that the 2019 Fact Sheet violates the 2013 Final Plan and four other specific federal laws.
Both the USDA and APHIS heard expert testimony that mandating RFID would cost producers “$1.2 Billion to $1.9 Billion,” according to the lawsuit. The brief also noted that Advisory Committees formed to write the 2019 Factsheet did not include representatives from R-CALF USA or any groups that opposed mandating RFID. Rather, they took advice only from parties lobbying for RFID – including the corporation that manufactures the RFID tags.
Five days after R-CALF USA filed the suit, President Donald Trump issued two executive orders that were aimed at preventing executive agencies from imposing legally binding regulations outside of the legal rule-making process. Then, just two weeks later, the 2019 Fact Sheet suddenly disappearedfrom the USDA website.
Absent the Fact Sheet, cattle growers have gained a temporary relief from the RFID mandate. However, it may come back at any time. The lawsuit remains on file. Hopefully, it will bring about a permanent return to the 2013 Plan that was developed through the legal process.
Only weeks ago, I told the story of Andy Johnson in Mountain View and how a similar bureaucratic bird’s nest threatened to bankrupt his young family. Now, another story from the opposite corner of the state drives home the point that care for our neighbors requires us all to be vigilant against government over-reach.
The way of life that makes Wyoming what it is did not happen by accident. It was cultivated by parents, grandparents, and great grandparents that worked hard to build a community where families could thrive. They did this not only by working the land. They also paid attention to the law. They handed us a constitution designed to keep policy-making local because they knew that only those with boots on the ground know the land well enough to govern it.
Wyoming has an awful lot of land that you cannot see from the road. The coal miners, roughnecks and cowboys who work it may be out of sight, but they dare not be out of mind. We owe them a debt of gratitude for lighting our homes, fueling our cars and feeding our families.
Not only that, we also owe them our support and help when they are threatened by out-of-touch bureaucrats. The way of life that we love was handed us by their ancestors, and they are an integral part of passing it on to our grandchildren. Thanks to Harriet Hageman, R-CALF USA and every unsung hero who fights obscure injustices to preserve our families and communities.