Opinion: Colorado’s top animal-protection officer is not a friend of livestock producers

Will the Agriculture Department have our back?

From an opinion piece in the Colorado Sun by Janie VanWinkle
Mar 18, 2022

I am a 4th-generation livestock producer in Mesa County. At VanWinkle Ranch, we make our living by stewarding the land and caring for the animals we have responsibility for. There is dignity and honor in the work that we do to support food security in our county, state, nation, and globally.

We have some serious concerns regarding the appointment of the Director of the Bureau of Animal Protection in the Colorado Department of Agriculture, as well as the process that was used. It was announced in February that Dr. Rebecca Niemiec will be the director.

Dr. Niemiec has significant ties to animal-welfare groups that are loudly opposed to livestock production for food. She is currently leading a project in conjunction with the City of Boulder and Mercy For Animals, which is dedicated to diminishing food animals from our food system in favor of “plant-based products.”

As consumers and livestock producers, this is a very large, and a very red, flag for us that this person may not have the best interests of all food production, including food animals, at heart and be able to act impartially in these matters.

Dr. Niemiec is a Science Advisory Board member of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which is an advocate for introduction of wolves into the communities where our fellow producers care for their livestock. We believe that past activities speak loudly, and are concerned that someone who advocated so strongly for a cause that has such detrimental consequences to our animals, will be willing to hear our concerns.

As caretakers of the animals and food producers in our state, we are concerned that it will be very difficult for us to have trust in this person, and in the processes of the Bureau of Animal Protection to ensure that we will continue to be able to operate our businesses and care for our animals in a way that is consistent with best practices of the livestock community and at the same time continue to contribute to food security.

Instead, livestock producers are under attack again, from the very department, the Colorado Department of Agriculture, whose mission statement is “to strengthen and advance Agriculture.” This is similar to an incident in 2019 when Gov. Polis took Impossible Whoppers to the Department of Agriculture staff and made negative statements regarding the future of livestock production in our state.

Also, Gov. Polis signed a Meat Out proclamation in 2021 to encourage Colorado residents to stop eating meat provided by livestock producers. These are examples of the current administration’s lack of support for Colorado livestock producers.

We are troubled by the structure of this department. In the past, the Bureau of Animal Protection was under the administration of the state veterinarian, whose role it is to support producers in many ways, including livestock disease management.

It is possible that an outbreak of disease could look like a welfare issue. Would the Bureau of Animal Protection folks have the qualifications to consider this without the direction and guidance of the state veterinarian? How does the Department of Agriculture expect this to look going forward? Who is better at analyzing animal well-being than a veterinarian?

In an Agriculture Commission meeting on Feb. 9, when I asked this question of Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg, she told me the new position would be reporting to the operations manager of the department. The state veterinarian would be on the team, but the Bureau of Animal Protection director no longer reports to the state veterinarian.

What qualifications would the operations manager have to direct animal care? The state veterinarian is the most qualified to oversee the well-being of animals.

I also asked the commissioner if Dr. Neimic would continue with her role in the Mercy For Animals project. Ms. Greenberg was unable to say what projects Dr. Niemiec would continue to work on.

The selection process was suspect, as well. Agriculture Deputy Commissioner Steve Silverman put forth a slate of four applicants. There were two people that had experience in handling animal welfare situations, and two candidates from extreme animal-rights groups.

Later, those four recommendations were scrapped in favor of Gov. Jared Polis’ slate of three different applicants, each of whom had close ties with extremist animal-rights activist groups. According to an article in the ag magazine The Fence Post, it appears Gov. Polis had significant influence in the candidates that were interviewed and the final selection of Dr. Niemiec. Does the Governor generally involve himself in mid-level staff selections?

We are imploring the Department of Agriculture to regard livestock producers, and the trade associations that represent us, as partners on these decisions that impact our animals, our businesses, and Colorado’s food security in such a significant way.

No one cares about animal conditions and welfare as much as those of us that care for them day-in and day-out — sometimes 24 hours a day, as when many of us are calving our cows. We have grave concerns about how the Bureau of Animal Protection will be authorized to impact our operations.

In the past, law enforcement has been able to assist the Bureau of Animal Protection with these issues. There are several documented cases where an operator was contacted after the animals in their care were being neglected. In working with the state vet office and law enforcement, the operators resolved the problems without sensationalizing them, and the animals’ needs were met.

Will we be able to trust that this will be the case going forward?

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