The outcome of the Nov. 4 election hung like an ominous storm cloud this week as members of the Idaho Cattle Association gathered in Sun Valley for their annual convention.
Convention speakers on Monday afternoon predicted that Democrats' riding to a more powerful majority in Washington, D.C., will mean more regulation, additional listings under the federal Endangered Species Act and expansion of national monuments and wilderness areas.
For ranchers in Idaho and elsewhere in the West, the specter of change seems most tied to efforts to protect wildlife that conservationists and some federal biologists consider imperiled, such as gray wolves and greater sage grouse.
Andy Groseta, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, predicted that the Bush administration will hand off a court-ordered review of whether to list sage grouse as threatened or endangered under the ESA to the incoming Obama administration. Such a listing, which the federal government earlier rejected, could extend across Idaho and 10 other Western states.
"This administration is not going to have this review done on their watch," Groseta said.
A December 2007 ruling by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill prompted the current review. Winmill ruled that Fish and Wildlife Service officials ignored the "best science" in rejecting petitions to list the sage grouse. The decision was appealed by Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, one of numerous conservation groups that filed a petition for ESA listing in 2003.
Though Groseta said he was "hoping during the Bush administration we'd get some things worked out" in terms of regulatory relief, he said the Obama team has indicated a willingness to provide public lands ranchers a seat at the table when decisions are made. He said his group will continue to fight for ranchers who are getting "regulated out of business."
Prior to the election, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association sat down with both the Obama and McCain campaigns and "spoon-fed" them information pertinent to the nation's ranching industry, Groseta said. He said the association had endorsed George W. Bush for president, but decided against doing the same for either candidate this time.
"We didn't want to go down that road again," he said without elaborating.
He predicted that the Obama administration will place more emphasis on food safety and public lands issues.
"They're up in the forefront with the Obama administration," he said. "There's going to be more regulations coming down the pike."
Fear of the unknown seemed to dominate much of Monday's talk. Voicing similar concerns was Celia Gould, director of the Idaho Department of Agriculture.
"It's an interesting time," Gould told the large crowd at the Sun Valley Inn. "I can't say for sure where we're headed."
She said that in Idaho, the impacts of a changing congressional delegation are not clear. Retiring Sen. Larry Craig and defeated first-term Rep. Bill Sali, both Republicans, will be replaced by Senator-elect Jim Risch, a Republican, and Representative-elect Walt Minnick, a Democrat.
Gould seemed particularly grieved at the loss of Craig, who enjoyed seniority back in Washington.
"He was rock-steady," she said. "That loss is going to be a real hit for Idaho."
As for Idaho's 2nd Congressional District representative, Gould said, "We've got a good friend in Congressman (Mike) Simpson."
Gould gave a more tempered endorsement to Idaho's first Democratic member of the state's four-member congressional delegation since 1995. She said many Idaho ranchers had conversations with Minnick prior to the election.
"I believe he will follow through and do what's good for the state," she said.
Ranchers should also fear an increasingly powerful animal rights lobby, Groseta said. Well-financed, these activists' primary mission is to destroy the country's cattle industry, he claimed.
"They want to take cattle off the land and beef off the plate," he said. "These folks are for real. They want to put us out of business."
Groseta extolled his fellow ranchers to join their local and national cattle associations. He said fewer than 10 percent of ranchers belong to such organizations, leaving them far outgunned on the financial front by groups like the National Humane Society.
"We need the firepower. We need to fight these people."