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Cattle await auction at the Producer’s Livestock Marketing Association Sale Barn in Greeley, Colorado, on April 3, 2019. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun).

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday rejected a proposed 2022 ballot question on animal cruelty, saying the measure seeking to define common ranching and farming practices as sex acts violates a clause in the state constitution. 

The court specifically ruled that Initiative 16 violates the Colorado constitution’s single-subject requirement, which says a ballot question or piece of legislation cannot cover unrelated topics. 

The measure, Initiative 16, would have not only made artificial insemination against the law, it would also have required that ranch animals get to live 25% of their lifespan before heading to slaughter. 

“Initiative 16 fails to satisfy the single-subject requirement because expanding the definition of ‘sexual act with an animal’ isn’t necessarily and properly connected to the measure’s central focus of incorporating livestock into the animal cruelty statutes,” Justice William W. Hood wrote in the court’s opinion.

The decision returns the question to the state’s title board, housed in the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, and to proponents of the initiative.  But the court’s decision means proponents will have to file a new measure to move forward and abide by the single-subject rule requirement.

Farmers and ranchers are strongly opposed to the ballot initiative, saying that it would define common agricultural practices for assisting reproduction or checking an animal’s reproductive organs as “sex acts.”

One of the requirements in the initiative was that cows, hogs and other livestock get to live at least 25% of their natural lives before heading to the slaughterhouse, which ranchers argued would devastate Colorado’s agriculture economy. 

Cattle are typically slaughtered for beef around age 2, but under the proposal, that would change to age 5. By then, the meat is no longer fit for tender steaks, the extra age making cuts tough and unappetizing, ranchers say. 

Janie VanWinkle, who has 470 cows in Fruita and Grand Junction, was attending the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association annual state convention when news of the court ruling began to spread Monday morning. 

“It’s certainly improved the mood around here,” she said via phone from the three-day meeting in Grand Junction. “Everybody is talking about it and feeling good.” 

VanWinkle, who was on horseback Saturday and on a tractor Sunday, said ranchers spend their lives caring for their animals, which is why she found the ballot measure offensive. “Everything we do is focused on the resources and the livestock,” she said. 

Even though the proposal is dead for now, ranchers need to stay vigilant about educating the public about the livestock industry, she said. “It’s really important to build relationships and connect with consumers and voters about the care that we give our animals.”

Kenny Rogers, a cattle rancher in Yuma, took a break from putting up fencing to celebrate. “I have an unopened, top-shelf bottle of scotch that should be opened now,” he said.

But Rogers worries the battle for ranchers isn’t over. “My fear is they’ll simply regroup and keep coming at us. They have much deeper pockets than we do for these things.”

The title board gave the initiative’s backers approval to begin gathering signatures in mid-April, but lawyers representing ranchers and farmers took the matter to court.

The backers of Initiative 16 had until Oct. 18 to collect and turn in the signatures of about 125,000 registered Colorado voters to get the question on the 2022 ballot.

Should the proponents decide to change their ballot language, they will have to go before the title board again with a new measure and, if the question is approved, the signature-collection deadline would reset.

The ballot measure proposed removing the livestock exemption in state statute for animal cruelty and expanding the definition of a sex act with an animal. Sex acts with an animal would have included “any intrusion or penetration, however slight, with an object or part of a person’s body into an animal’s anus or genitals.” 

Ranchers say that would prevent them from performing artificial inseminations, embryo transfers, pregnancy checks, and a host of other common practices. 

The ballot measure also defined animals’ natural lifespans: 20 years for a cow, 15 for a pig, eight for a chicken, six for a rabbit. Each must get to live at least a quarter of its natural life before going to harvest, it said. 

At the title board hearing, an attorney for a farming and ranching coalition called Coloradans for Animal Care argued that the measure violated the single-subject rule. 

“This is a measure that has been concocted to address multiple issues that really have no necessary or clear connection to one another,” Mark Grueskin, an attorney representing the livestock groups, said then. He noted that the measure defines both a pig’s lifespan and sex acts with animals. 

Grueskin chuckled when reading the website for the measure, where backers wrote that their intent is to protect animals from being “abandoned, abused, neglected, mistreated or sexually assaulted.”

“Sexually assaulted?” Grueskin said. “That is their politically charged code to get this past a majority of voters.”

Backers of the proposal said then the subject of their proposed measure was clear: Everything in it is connected to animal cruelty. The two proponents of the measure, Alexander Sage and Brent Johannes, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday on whether they plan to rewrite the measure. 

The Colorado Farm Bureau called the ruling a win for “pet owners, livestock owners and anyone in Colorado who interacts with animals.” 

But the decision is also a win for “anyone who’s interested in a responsible ballot initiative process,” said Shawn Martini, the bureau’s vice president for advocacy. “This process has been abused for far too long, and this is yet another reminder that ambiguous language, bait-and-switch tactics, and attempts to conceal the real-world results of ballot initiatives are bad for our state and will not be allowed to stand,” he said. 

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....