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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gov. Butch Otter signs ‘ag-gag’ bill

Dain Johnson, an intern in Gov. Butch Otter’s office, sorted through more than 110,000 signatures from around the country urging Otter to veto a bill that stiffens penalties for people who secretly film agriculture operations on Wednesday, in Boise. About 2,475 of the signatures were from Idaho residents, Johnson said. (Associated Press)
John Miller Associated Press

BOISE – Gov. Butch Otter signed a bill Friday that imposes jail time and fines against people who secretly film animal abuse at Idaho’s agricultural facilities.

Otter inked the new law swiftly, just two days after it cleared its final legislative hurdle in the House.

The bill came in response to videos released by Los Angeles-based vegetarian and animal rights group Mercy for Animals showing workers at Bettencourt Dairy beating, stomping, dragging and sexually abusing cows in 2012.

Idaho’s $2.5 billion dairy industry complained the group used its videos not to curb abuse, but to unfairly hurt Bettencourt’s business. Bettencourt operates dairies at numerous locations that include more than 60,000 cows and is one of the largest dairy companies in the U.S.

The founder of Greek yogurt maker Chobani had asked Otter to veto the bill, as did game show host and animal rights activist Bob Barker.

Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya said in a statement on Friday that the law would limit transparency, could cause general public concern, and conflicts with the company’s views and values.

The company has a $450 million plant in Twin Falls in the heart of south-central Idaho’s dairy region.

Otter, a rancher, said the measure will help make agriculture producers more secure in their property and their livelihood.

“My signature today reflects my confidence in their desire to responsibly act in the best interest of the animals on which that livelihood depends,” Otter wrote in a statement. “No animals rights organization cares more or has more at stake than Idaho farmers and ranchers do in ensuring that their animals are healthy, well-treated and productive.”

Utah, Idaho’s neighbor to the south, has a similar law. It’s being challenged in federal court on grounds that, among other things, it infringes upon activists’ free speech rights to expose cruelty.

Under Idaho’s measure that was branded by its foes as an “ag-gag bill,” people caught surreptitiously filming agricultural operations face up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. That’s double the maximum penalty for animal cruelty under Idaho law.

In the Legislature, Democrats opposed the bill on grounds that it makes Idaho’s agriculture industry seem like it’s hiding something.

Mercy For Animals immediately decried Otter’s signature Friday, saying that it transforms Idaho into “a safe haven for animal abuse.”

Bob Naerebout, who heads the Idaho Dairymen’s Association that promoted the measure, said Mercy For Animals has it wrong.

Naerebout contends the organization unfairly sought to persuade Bettencourt’s customers to stop buying its milk products – even after the farm’s owner, Luis Bettencourt, fired five workers filmed mistreating cows and cooperated with their prosecution.