Schweitzer: lobbyists ignore ranchers' interests
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP)--Gov. Brian Schweitzer told members of a conservative livestock association Dec. 11 that he has pushed an agenda favorable to their industry but repeatedly run into opposition from the group's lobbyists.
Schweitzer was invited to address the Montana Stockgrowers Association annual convention by leaders of the organization eager to end years of disagreement with the Democratic governor.
They have disagreed most publicly on animal disease management, with the Stockgrowers saying Schweitzer has not done enough to protect cattle interests against brucellosis. That's a disease carried by Yellowstone-area elk and bison and transmittable to cattle.
An effective truce between the two sides was reached in October, when Stockgrowers president Tom Hougen delivered a formal apology to the governor and asked to make amends.
But given the chance to make his case directly to the group's estimated 2,000 members, Schweitzer took the offensive.
He blamed the discord with his administration on the Stockgrowers' lobbyists, lawyers and leadership.
On issues ranging from the reform of real estate investment trusts to tax increases on oil production, Schweitzer suggested a select few within the Helena-based organization had gone against its members' best interests.
"I bet you didn't know you didn't support it. You didn't get taken of,'' he said of his failed attempt in 2007 to close a loophole in the way real estate investment trusts are taxed.
Following Schweitzer's address, Hougen insisted the Stockgrowers policies were in line with its members wishes. But he declined to get into the substance of the speech, saying, "there's no need to look back.''
"The leadership and the lobbyists and the staff represent the members,'' said Hougen, who ranches in Melstone. "As far as the association goes, we're looking forward.''
Schweitzer also rejected past assertions that he had given in to pressure from federal officials on the handling of brucellosis.
The disease is common among Yellowstone's bison, which are subject to periodic slaughter when they attempt to make their winter migration outside the park.
"No governor in Montana history has sent more bison to slaughter than this governor,'' Schweitzer said.
When Schweitzer first proposed a "hot zone'' for management of brucellosis around Yellowstone National Park, the Stockgrowers vehemently opposed the idea. They said it would stigmatize Yellowstone-area cattle producers, subjecting them to disease testing rules not applicable outside the zone.
The idea eventually gained support within the livestock industry, in part because it would relieve ranchers elsewhere from restrictions on interstate cattle sales.