The Bureau of Animal Protection has a new director, selected from a pool of candidates that included two animal rights attorneys and a wolf introduction and “humane food choice proponent.”
The final choice to lead the bureau, announced this week by Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg, is Rebecca (Becky) Niemiec (pronounced “Knee-Mick”) an assistant professor in the human dimensions of Natural Resources Department at Colorado State University and the director of the Conservation Action Lab.
The BAP’s published mission reads, “The protection of companion animals and livestock is a matter of statewide concern. Therefore, it is the mission of the Bureau of Animal Protection to administer and enforce the provisions of the Animal Protection Act to prevent the neglect, mistreatment or abuse of animals in Colorado.”
The BAP falls under the umbrella of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, but open records requests by The Fence Post indicate Gov. Jared Polis had a strong influence in the final selection.
Deputy Ag Commissioner Steve Silverman and his selection panel put forward four applicants to move forward in the interview process as finalists. Those included a Colorado county animal control supervisor with BAP experience, a specialist in animal cruelty investigations and prosecutions with a metro district attorney’s office, a state director for the Humane Society of the United States, and a senior executive of Mercy for Animals.
Despite Silverman’s panel’s recommendation, on Jan. 25, Polis put forward three picks — none of whom appeared on the deputy commissioner’s short list.
In addition to Niemiec, Polis’ final picks also included John Hopkinson, who is currently employed by Los Angeles-based Animal Equity and was previously employed by the Oregon Humane Society. In his current post, he works “for an international animal protection organization focused on farmed animals” and said he is “very knowledgeable about common practices and agency oversight in the animal agriculture industry.” As part of a panel on investigating livestock crimes at the Animal Law Conference, he presented “Pasture to Prosecution: Using the Power of Animal Cruelty Laws to Protect Farmed Animals.”
The governor’s third pick was Douglas Donneson, a former zookeeper turned entertainment attorney. He interned at Animal Outlook, where he said he filed a class action lawsuit against dairy producers.
FINAL DECISION IS MADE
On Jan. 27, an offer was made to Niemiec to the tune of $120,000. The original job posting advertised the salary range top end of $74,400 annually.
The selection committee making the final decision was Greenberg, deputy commissioner of operations Hollis Glenn and Polis.
In the press release announcing her hire, Niemiec said animal welfare will always be a complex issue that brings a wide range of passion and concerns.
“I look forward to exploring how the BAP Program can use education and outreach as our primary tool to take a proactive approach to prevent animal abuse, rather than a reactive approach once that abuse has occurred,” Niemiec said. “My goal is to support the majority of Colorado ranchers and pet owners who love and care for their animals while addressing those rare instances in which animal abuse and neglect require an appropriate response to ensure the health and safety of the animals are met.”
Niemiec conducted a study that advocated for the introduction of wolves to Colorado, and is currently leading a half million-dollar National Science Foundation grant in partnership with the City of Boulder and Mercy for Animals focused on promoting plant-based food choices. Mercy for Animals seeks to “construct a compassionate food system by reducing suffering and ending the exploitation of animals for food.”
According to their website, “Mercy For Animals’ mission is to construct a compassionate food system that is not just kind to animals but essential for the future of our planet and all who share it. Our vision of a world where animals are respected, protected, and free drives the work we do every day.”
Their stated methods of accomplishing this include undercover investigations, involvement in government policy and public affairs, corporate engagement, growing the market of plant-based foods, and keeping farmed animals in the headlines worldwide.
CONCERNING MESSAGE TO AG PRODUCERS
Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, said of the three finalists suggested by Polis, Niemiec is probably the least objectionable. He says he is more concerned about this hire than even Polis’s appointment of Ellen Kessler to the State Board of Veterinary Medicine. Kessler is an outspoken animal rights and vegan activist who recently resigned after she publicly called ranchers “lazy and nasty.” There was no indication Polis called for her resignation.
“The message being sent by the governor is agriculture being a mortal enemy of the Department of Agriculture and the state,” Fankhauser said. “That message is being heard loud and clear. We are under attack.”
Colorado’s ag industry is also closely watching the nationwide search for a new deputy commissioner of agriculture to replace Silverman, who is leaving the department. Fankhauser said the major agriculture groups have not had a seat at the table as decisions for that post are made.
Kenny Rogers, a cattle producer and president-elect of the Colorado Livestock Association said the CDA and the governor’s office has ignored the input of the state’s long-standing agriculture groups.
“I never imagined it would be this bad,” he said. “They’re taking actions that have dire consequences for the state’s agriculture producers, and I believe they’re fully aware of those consequences.”
QUALIFICATIONS AND BACKGROUND
Niemiec is currently an assistant professor in the human dimensions of Natural Resources Department at Colorado State University. According to her application for the top job at the BAP, she is the co-director of the Center for Human Carnivore Coexistence and the director of the Conservation Action through Behavioral Science Lab. Among her connections, she lists Mercy for Animals, the City of Boulder, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Defenders of Wildlife.
Prior to the Colorado vote on wolf introduction, Niemiec’s social survey through her role at the Center for Human Carnivore Coexistence was widely used. The findings of the survey used by wolf proponents stated that public attitudes towards wolves and wolf reintroduction are generally positive in the U.S., including Colorado. Online and mail surveys conducted over the last few decades have found consistent support for wolf reintroduction among a majority of Colorado residents on the Eastern Plains, Front Range and Western Slope, according to the survey. The findings showed that 84 percent of residents would vote for wolf introduction, though the Colorado bill passed with 51 percent of the vote.
“Simply calling the shots as I see them, livestock producers will believe actions speak louder than words,” Fankhauser said. “Those actions involve promoting wolf introduction and anti-meat activism …and now, simultaneously, being a regulator of the livestock industry. Trust will be difficult to earn.”
Ag commissioner Greenberg praised the hire and Niemiec’s research and experience on the relationships between people and animals.
“With her background as a behavioral scientist and commitment to working with people of diverse perspectives on tough issues, she will bring a new focus to the BAP program around prevention and education,” Greenberg said in a statement to The Fence Post. “This includes collaboration, training, outreach, and field support to partners from the livestock community to local law enforcement, animal welfare and veterinarians, who share our commitment to holding bad actors accountable. In addition, CDA has requested new budget resources to help support this work that will help put tools for education and prevention of animal abuse in the toolbox as we work alongside partners to advance this work.”
AGRICULTURE COMMISSION MEETS
The Agriculture Commission convened on Feb. 9 with notable public attendance online. Greenberg again defended the hire and said she is trying to “reimagine what is possible” with the BAP program by incorporating Greenberg’s vision of education and prevention.
“We have never had the capacity to ask why are these happening in the first place and how we can provide services to people who may be struggling,” she said. “We know anecdotally that life circumstances, mental health challenges, other contributing factors can play into animal welfare and what we want to do, what I want to do is draw on the expertise of the people in those areas to provide more services to people who are struggling and end up in the BAP program one way or another.”
Greenberg said the need for BAP resources have increased and noted that the CDA will be filling two investigator positions and one for a forensic veterinarian. She also said the majority of cases do not involve production agriculture, but most complaints made to the BAP involve backyard pets including livestock animals.
David Blach, the commission’s new member from Yuma, asked multiple questions about Niemeic’s management experience and ultimately went on record to voice his concern over Niemiec’s conflicts of interest.
Blach asked about the volume of requests to the BAP and how many of those involve mental health service needs. Greenberg indicated the department has not collected that data.
As part of the public comment portion of the meeting, rancher and past CCA president Janie VanWinkle told the commission of her deep concern about Niemiec’s animal welfare extremist group ties.
“As a representative of many livestock producers in the state, I’m telling you it will be very hard for me to have trust in this person and in the processes to ensure we’ll be able to continue to operate our businesses and care for our animals in a way that is consistent with the best practices of the livestock community,” she said. “We feel that we’re under attack again from the very department that is supposed to be advocating for us.”
Kenny Rogers, a rancher and incoming president of the Colorado Livestock Association said the hiring of Niemiec will not inspire cooperation from the livestock industry based on her history with extremist organizations. He said the lack of input sought and heeded from livestock groups is something that did not exist with previous administrations but has now left the industry without even a seat at the table.
Greenberg said she is confident that Niemiec’s personal views will be set aside as it is done by all state employees. Niemiec will be working with the State Veterinarian Maggie Baldwin and will directly report to Deputy Director of Operations Hollis Glenn. Greenberg said she is unsure whether Niemiec will continue her role with Mercy for Animals once she takes over as BAP director.
“I recognize there is a perception there and we’ve been dealing with just a lot of hard conversations as an ag community — wolves are one, labor is one, water is one — one of our previous board members said it used to just be water and labor, now it’s water and labor and animal welfare and the cost of doing business, and what it takes to stay in business, and the price of inputs and the list goes on,” Greenberg said. “You’re a producer in the middle of calving and you took the time to show up at a public meeting and the same with our board members who are producers. I really value the participation of all of you today.”
The BAP director position salary ranges from $87,000 to $148,000, plus benefits. According to the official job posting, which was revised in December, the director will be charged with executing the governor’s vision for improving animal protection across the state. Primary duties include coordination and oversight of approximately 100 commissioned BAP agents (outside the state system), including law enforcement authorities that respond to complaints of animal cruelty and neglect. This includes providing agents training and managing the commissioning process for each agent. The position serves as the leading coordinator on investigations conducted by BAP agents on investigations related to companion animals. The position coordinates with internal staff and law enforcement officers on investigations and enforcement actions related to livestock.
The director also aids and assists local agencies with the seizure of domestic or other privately owned animals and livestock. It is also noted on the posting that “impending legislation may authorize three additional full-time positions for the BAP unit that would be supervised by the BAP program manager.” In the governor’s budget request to the Joint Budget Committee for the fiscal year 2023, he has earmarked $345,058 to fund 2.8 full-time employees to enhance the resources of the Bureau of Animal Protection.
The first of the three new BAP positions was posted on Feb. 7, prior to the funds for the position being appropriated. The position description is for the lead CDA investigator on complaints related to animal welfare issues. The lead will conduct investigations and assist local law enforcement and veterinarians in various cases; work on the training of approximately 125 BAP commissioned agents; be responsible for training and outreach, and communications related to the investigative elements of the BAP program and on specific cases as appropriate. This position is responsible for the delegation and tracking of investigations and will be the primary CDA point of contact during an investigation and assist all investigators in determining what action to take to care for an animal.
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