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Empty promises

CALGARY, Alta. - Across Western Canada parties were planned the weekend of March 5-6 to celebrate the re-opening of the U.S. border to live Canadian cattle March 7....

CALGARY, Alta. – Across Western Canada parties were planned the weekend of March 5-6 to celebrate the re-opening of the U.S. border to live Canadian cattle March 7.

But before a single party hat was worn or glass of champagne poured, all celebrations were hastily called off as controversial protectionist group R-CALF won a temporary injunction against it.

It was yet another blow to Canadian producers and cattle haulers who have been locked out of the U.S. market since a case of mad cow disease surfaced on an Alberta farm in May 2003.

“We will not celebrate a closed border,” said disappointed party organizer Alex Baum, following the announcement. He had intended to host about 2,000 people at a beef barbecue at the Cochrane Dodge dealership just west of Calgary.

“We’ll celebrate when it’s time to celebrate. Right now, we’ll say a prayer for our ranchers,” he told local media.

“This is a black, black day for the livestock industry in North America,” lamented feedlot operator, Rick Paskal of Picture Butte, Alta.

He had planned to be among the first to ship loads of cattle south of the border.

Those plans were put to rest when R-CALF (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund) took one last stab at keeping the border closed by filing a temporary injunction against the re-opening. That last stab hit its mark, when U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull granted their request just days before the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had promised to lift the cattle ban.

While it’s expected the USDA will appeal the ruling, it’s not yet known when that will happen. Until then, Canadian producers and cattle haulers are once again stuck in limbo, waiting for a much-needed break.

But not everyone was surprised by the last minute victory by R-CALF. Grace Cattle Carriers owner Keith Horsburgh recently told Truck News “I don’t think we’ve heard the end of R-CALF at all.”

Unfortunately, that grim prediction turned out to be somewhat prophetic.

What happens next remains to be seen. Judge Cebull encouraged R-CALF to seek a permanent injunction following his ruling. However, the USDA and even U.S. president George W. Bush himself vowed to move quickly to clear this latest hurdle and once again permit Canadian cattle under 30 months of age to cross the border.

“These R-CALF legal actions are purely protectionist measures that fly in the face of what governments on both sides of the border want,” Alberta Minister of Agriculture, Doug Horner, told local media following the announcement.

“I expect the USDA will appeal the decision and take whatever means are necessary to move their plan forward.”

While some Western U.S. cattle ranchers are enjoying high cattle prices thanks to the lock-out of Canadian cattle, meat packers say the ban has cost their industry more than US$1.7 billion. The Canadian cattle industry itself is reeling to the tune of $7 billion.

Still, protectionist groups and some American politicians continue to insist it’s too risky to allow Canadian cattle to cross.

“They’ve got mad cow disease,” Senator Kent Conrad told reporters.

“Now the question is, should we run the risk of opening our border to livestock imports from Canada, when the evidence demonstrates clearly they’re not enforcing their regulations to reduce the risk to them and to us?”

Those with a better grasp on the science of BSE say his concerns are unwarranted.

“I do not feel that there is a rational health reason to prohibit the import of Canadian cattle to the U.S.,” Dr. Neil Cashman told reporters following the announcement.

“The movement of U.S. and Canadian herds across the border and the similarities in feeding practices of the two countries prior to and after 1997 make the risk of BSE the same in both countries, which is extremely low but not zero.”

For now, many cattleliners will remain parked with others only servicing domestic destinations. The latest announcement has increased motivation for a group of Alberta ranchers who plan to move ahead with construction of their own processing plant in an effort to lessen Canada’s dependence on U.S. facilities.

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