I asked Mike Honeycutt, Executive Officer for a short update of what is a happening at the Montana Department of Livestock. Honeycutt has been at the DOL for only a short time as he was hired in December 2015 and started his job as EO on February 1, 2016.
Busy Spring and Summer for the Department of Livestock
by Mike Honeycutt
It has been a whirlwind at the department in the past few months. We have been going through many changes in personnel, dealing with weighty issues regarding Bison management, monitoring livestock depredation, solving issues with providing inspection services for livestock products (meat, milk and egg), attending legislative hearings and improving our financial monitoring and reporting. Here are a few highlights that we feel producers should be aware of in regard to where the Department of Livestock:
Budget: In accordance with recommendations from the department’s Long Range Planning Committee we have worked hard to improve the quality of our financial presentations to the board and have engaged our managers in monthly conversations regarding their budgets. This increased monitoring has paid off very well. Many in the department express that we just completed the smoothest fiscal year end in many years. The department was able to hold expenses within the authority given us by the legislature and put money in the bank. Thanks to the BOL’s work on revenues we were able to begin building fund balances that will serve as a safety net for the department in the future should we see cyclical dips in major fund sources such as per capita fees, brand revenues or lab revenues. The hope is this will prevent us from having to use drastic measures like employee layoffs or furloughs as has been needed in the past.
Bison/Brucellosis Management: We have experienced a lot of activity around our statutory obligation to manage potentially diseased Bison emanating from Yellowstone National Park. This was our first season dealing with the expanded year round tolerance that was approved by the Governor. Based on environmental conditions dealing with a short winter early green up for the range inside the park this did not put a great deal of stress on our operations to keep Bison away from summer cattle range in the area. We will be monitoring the situation and see how a return to normal weather patterns affect our operations in the future. We also have been dealing with Ft. Peck Indiana Reservation and YNP in regard to a bison quarantine facility the tribe has built near Poplar. Their intent is to take diseased bison from the park and quarantine them according to the required protocols to create a cohort of disease free bison. We have contended that state law, MCA 81-2-120, does not allow us to permit such a transfer unless the state veterinarian can certify those animals as brucellosis free which cannot be done scientifically based on what we know of the disease prevalence in the Yellowstone population. Dr. Zaluski and I have visited the quarantine facility and met directly with tribal leaders on several occasions to convey the reasoning for our concerns. To date no bison have been moved to the facility due in large to the Department’s objection. A tribal delegation presented to the BOL on August 15th and while the conversation was positive and cordial we still have an impasse regarding movement based on 81-2-120. Recently we did have to follow suit with other states and put additional testing restrictions on cattle coming in to the state from Big Horn County, WY because of Brucellosis in some elk herds in that area and the fact that Wyoming has not expanded its Designated Surveillance Area to include that county. We are also in the beginning stages of a Legislative Audit that will look at how DOL and FWP are managing the state’s Brucellosis risks.
Livestock Depredation: As many along the front know it has been a very busy year in regard to this topic, especially along the northern Rocky Mountain Front and adjacent plains. George Edwards, with the Livestock Loss Board, and I attended a public meeting about the Grizzly Bear situation that has been occurring in that area. In addition, Nina Bacchus and I recently went before the FWP Commission to speak against a petition put forth by the Natural Resources Defense Council that would limit the tools that USDA Wildlife Services would be able to use in active Grizzly Bear habitat. We see this measure as potentially making it difficult to manage the state’s number one predator, coyotes. The LLB has been processing claims as quickly as process allows and recently approved transferring $82,000 in additional funds to USDA Wildlife services to help defray the cost of the numerous investigations that have been needed. While there is not a lot that the Department has a statutory obligation to do in many of these situations the Board and staff are monitoring things closely and trying to ensure that the voice of livestock owners is being represented in conversations.
Meat, Milk and Egg Inspection: We finally found a solution to the issue of how to fund the states program of FDA compliance for dairy producers and processors. The Board led several industry work sessions and came to an agreement on a new Administrative Rule that went in to affect with the beginning of the fiscal year. The solution relies on the use of State General Fund to help keep producer costs acceptable but that will be challenged in the legislature. Another departmental challenge is how to deal with the increase in businesses interested in starting or expanding enterprises in this space. Recently we had to do a lot of work to figure out how we could serve a new poultry cooperative that wanted to begin slaughtering chickens this year. It will be an ongoing struggle to get the funding needed to staff these programs so that we can meet state and federal regulatory requirements and yet not be in a position where we do not have enough personnel to offer services and inhibit economic growth. The silver lining of this situation is this one of the few areas where we can build crossover alliances with legislators, constituencies and organizations that may not typically have an interest in the Department of Livestock.
Brand Enforcement: Leslie Doely has been doing an outstanding job as the new administrator for the Brands division at a time that is not so easy to manage. We have had a number of recent retirements and expect even more in the coming year. We have been blessed with many loyal and dedicated employees in this area but now a number of them have reached the time where they are ready to move on to the next phase of their lives. We have dealt with a number of job openings and have placed a priority on making sure markets are adequately staffed for fall run. This has required some permanent changes to our staffing organization and the movement of positions around to address immediate needs. We are on pace to have our market positions filled and are using seasonal positions to get some DOL brands veterans back in to help out all the new hires. We have held some very positive conversations with market owners recently to help them understand that we want to meet their business needs and look forward to them being a partner in determining how we best allocate our resources to do so.
Department Pay Increases: The last major issue has been executing some long overdue pay raises within the department. The positive cash situation and a trigger put in to the budget by the 2015 legislature that allowed us to get additional budget authority if we got our house in order has allowed us to make a needed investment in our staff. This is allowing us to help current employees and put us in a better position to recruit the best people we can in the future. For example, some of our employees were only at 50% of the market for their skill set according to the states market survey for all jobs within state government. To retain these employees we made the move to ensure all employees are paid at least 80% of the market for their type of position and skills based on the state survey. Most of the employees in this situation were in the markets doing some of the hardest and most important work we have within the department. It has also paid dividend in recruitment of new employees. The last time the department advertised for information Technology staff the jobs sat open without applicants for almost a year. We recently opened and Information Technology position and had 23 applicants. There is more ground to cover in making sure that we compensate our employees that make them want to stay with DOL and recruit the best and brightest we can for future openings but we feel we are in much better shape today than we were a year ago.
In closing, we want the DOL to be an open, transparent and responsive department for those we serve. The last few months have held many highs and lows but we all feel much progress has been made. We encourage all producers to share feedback and communicate with us on issues that are important to them.