October 2, 2007

National Animal ID System subject of legal action

The first of what we hope are many.
Cookson Beecher
From Capital Press

Concerned about Washington state's involvement with the National Animal Identification System, a small-scale livestock owner in Western Washington has taken legal action against the state's Agriculture Department.

In the motion filed with Superior Court in Thurston County on Sept. 28, Celeste Bishop asked the court to either order the department to produce the documents she has requested pertaining to the National Animal Identification System or explain why they haven't been produced.

Under the Public Disclosure Act, Bishop made her initial request on May 15, 2006. In her request, she told the department she wanted to see all NAIS-related records and documents from Jan. 1, 1997, to June 1, 2006.

According to information she received from the department, the department has about 400,000 documents on NAIS.

Bishop, who has met with department officials numerous times about her request, said that to be fair to the department, it has provided many records. But she also said that by law, citizens have a right to know what their government is doing and that the agency is required to give full disclosure unless a specific exemption applies.

In a telephone interview with Capital Press on Sept. 28, State Veterinarian Leonard Eldridge said the department has been working "very hard on this."

"We're making a huge effort to satisfy Celeste Bishop's request," he said.

The court will make a decision on the motion early this month.

Public information

Bishop is part of a group of concerned citizens that has taken on the role of informing the public about NAIS and about how it will affect them, their farms, and their livelihoods.

Bishop intends to put the documents she obtains from the department up on the website, NoNAISWA.org, where livestock owners, policy makers, and other interested parties will have access to them.

Once the motion and her declaration are scanned, they, too, will be available on that website.

Pointing out that this is a complex and controversial topic, Bishop said that people need to be knowledgeable about it and have a resource they can turn to that contains accurate information.

She also believes that it's important for department officials to realize that people want to be informed about any involvement the state might have in NAIS.

"There's a lot of miscommunication out there," she said. "People need to have accurate information about this."

Mandatory, eventually?

Bishop said one of the group's main concerns is that NAIS, currently a voluntary program, will become mandatory in Washington state.

"The department is building toward this piece by piece," she said. "It's implementing it incrementally."

She points to cooperative agreements the state is getting from various livestock organizations to implement NAIS in Washington state as an example of that.

Those who oppose NAIS fear that it will erode property rights and individual freedoms and give the government access to detailed information about their private property.

More about NAIS

According to the USDA, the goal of NAIS - originally proposed as mandatory but later changed to voluntary because of the intense controversy it sparked across the nation - is to prevent an outbreak of a foreign or domestic animal disease from spreading and inflicting devastating economic losses and serious animal and human health problems.

But in her declaration to the court, Bishop said that "while NAIS's purported goal of disease containment appears to be beneficial, the requirement for American citizens to register privately owned property for tracking and monitoring purposes has very serious implications for our privacy, rights and freedoms."

Species included in NAIS are bovine (cattle, bison), swine, sheep, goats, equine (horses, mules, donkeys), poultry, camelids (llamas, alpacas) and ratites (emus, ostriches).

Under NAIS, both the federal and state Departments of

Agriculture were to be involved in three phases: premise registration; animal identification; and animal movement reporting.

A premise is a location where animals are housed, held, or co-mingled.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) began voluntary premise registrations in January 2005.

During the 2007 legislative session, Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, introduced a bill that would have banned the state from participating in NAIS. At the time, he said he was responding to the concerns of many of his constituents - most of them small-scale livestock owners.

In a Sept. 28 telephone interview with Capital Press, Pearson said he believes that a mandatory form of NAIS raises borderline questions about the potential intrusion of government in people's lives.

Pearson's bill, in its original version, did not pass.

In his testimony on the bill, State Veterinarian Eldridge warned that the bill would prohibit him from continuing the voluntary NAIS program the state's Agriculture Department has in place.

He also pointed out that the previous year the Legislature passed a law that exempts all animal-identification system data from public disclosure.

Staff writer Cookson Beecher is based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash. E-mail: cbeecher@capitalpress.com.

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