BILLINGS, Mont. — Over two years ago, R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America was a tiny cattlemen's group, written off in some quarters as fringe and radical, focused on what many in the industry considered a nonissue — Canadian beef imports.
But three cases of mad-cow disease in Canada have propelled the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund from bit player to ringleader in an trade dispute that some see as the biggest and most divisive issue to confront the cattle industry in recent memory.
R-CALF, a ranchers' group based at a Billings auction yard, led the fight to keep Canadian beef and cattle out of this country indefinitely, in the name of protecting consumer health and cattlemen's herds. It's a cause that R-CALF's leaders say struck a nerve, attracting thousands of new members and giving the group newfound respect and credibility.
"The influence we are having is reshaping the direction of the U.S. cattle industry itself," chief executive officer Bill Bullard said.
But some in the industry see R-CALF as protectionist and anti-trade — more of a disruptive force than a major player. Packing interests and even some cattlemen's groups wonder whether the group's argument against fuller trade with Canada has been undercut — along with its credibility — by the recent discovery of mad-cow disease in Texas.
"They're kind of in a box with their argument," said Andy Gottschalk of the agribusiness research company HedgersEdge.com.
Still, some packer and industry groups admit that R-CALF cannot be ignored.
"We do not underestimate what the R-CALF people can accomplish," said Stan Eby, president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association.
In the past year, R-CALF scored two big legal victories, both of which were awarded by a federal judge in Billings.
The first, in the spring of 2004, kept the federal government from expanding beef trade with Canada.
The second, in March, delayed the resumption of limited cattle shipments just days before the U.S. Department of Agriculture had planned to let cattle trucks back into the country for the first time since May 2003, when Canada reported its first case of mad-cow disease.
But R-CALF lost a key court fight Thursday, when a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that preliminary injunction. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was not immediately available to comment on when it would allow imports of Canadian cattle to resume. The imports were banned in May 2003 after a cow in Alberta was found to have mad-cow disease.
An attorney for R-CALF called it a "sad and sorry day for cattle producers," and it came about two weeks before that federal judge in Billings, Richard Cebull, had planned to hear arguments on R-CALF's request to block all beef and cattle trade with Canada until USDA takes a closer look at the issue.
Bullard said R-CALF still hoped to have an opportunity to make that case.
Mark Dopp, senior vice president for regulatory affairs and general counsel with the American Meat Institute, a meatpackers' group, said the discovery of mad-cow disease in a U.S.-born cow in Texas makes R-CALF's argument for continuing to keep out Canadian cattle shaky, at best.
A cow in Washington state turned up with the brain-wasting disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, in December 2003, but the animal had come from Canada.
"The fact that we've, unfortunately, had a domestic case here just undercuts the credibility of their arguments of trying to identify cattle raised on this side of the border versus that side of the border," Dopp said.
Dennis McDonald, an R-CALF member and rancher near Melville, Mont., said the Texas case has raised too many as-yet unanswered questions and that conflicting test results also should raise concerns.
"For the life of me, I don't know how it follows that, because we've had one case, they should be allowed to import live cattle into this country," he said. "That logic escapes me."
Canadian officials, who have been pushing for fuller trade, didn't immediately impose sanctions against the United States after the Texas case.
Darcy Undseth, a senior veterinarian with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, called mad cow a "very manageable" disease and said science suggests that trade could be restored without major problems.
"I believe that special interest groups are looking at other things, other than the science behind BSE," he said.
The drawn-out dispute has caused divisions within the industry and even among cattle interest groups.
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, which is affiliated with both R-CALF and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said he's concerned that the border issue is "tearing us apart and weakening us as a whole."
Morgan Paisley, an analyst and trader with Alaron Trading, said the handling of the Canadian border issue, starting with USDA and continuing with the courtroom battles, has been "a debacle, to say the least."
Though R-CALF can be shrill in making some of its points, the group deserves credit for providing ranchers with representation on the Canadian border issue, he said.
"I have a lot of respect for them for that reason," Paisley said.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the trade fight, R-CALF's leaders think the group's membership and political stock will continue to rise. R-CALF says its membership has more than doubled in the past year alone, to more than 18,000.
And they say they don't regret getting involved in the dispute.
"We're keeping our focus on doing what's right," McDonald said. "If you're doing what right, it doesn't matter if you lose."