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Sonny Perdue in Cascade

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue meets with ag producers during a roundtable discussion at the Rick Bogden Ranch near Cascade Wednesday afternoon. 

ULM — Four hours into a barnstorming tour of Montana, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sat discussing grizzly bears and coyotes on the Canadian border.

It seemed the USDA had, through two presidencies, been cutting back on staff dedicated to dealing with the wildlife problems, and now the bears were wandering north and east into Montana ranch land where previously grizzlies hadn't been a problem.

This is coyote country, explained sheep rancher Dave McEwen, who had an audience that included not only Perdue, but Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, of Kansas, and Montana U.S. Sen Steve Daines. There were also a dozen farmers and ranchers from across the state, willing witnesses to the sheep rancher's tale told under a canvas tent upwind from the corral at Rick Bogdon's Ulm cattle ranch.

On a day when the the thunder clouds boiled above the May green landscape, the setting couldn't have been more Montana.

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Perdue tent

Senator Pat Roberts shakes hands with Fred Wacker, of Miles City, during a roundtable discussion at the Rick Bogden ranch near Cascade Wednesday afternoon. 

A hundred lambs a year lost to coyotes isn't unheard of, McEwen said. The discussion was pulling everyone's attention from the other coyotes facing Montana's largest private economic sector: a trade deal with Japan gone stale; the wrinkles that need to be ironed out before U.S. beef can be sold in China again for the first time in more than a decade; and budget cuts proposed by President Donald Trump that will likely affect farm subsidies.

By comparison, the grizzly and coyote problems were looking more easily solved for the state where agriculture is a $5 billion industry.

When federal help is available, ranchers control the coyotes with M44, a poison that has to be corked wherever endangered species like grizzlies are present.

The coyotes, McEwen said, are back with a vengeance, moving south from Canada for the easy eats.

"It's a nightmare. What the bears kill doesn't hold a candle to what the coyotes do," McEwen said, before inviting the former Georgia Gov. Perdue back this fall to "experience the aerial management of coyotes."

To which Perdue, unphased replied, "will you let me hang out of the 'copter?"

Wheat

There were no shortage of the issues Montana farmers and ranchers were hoping Perdue would target. Wheat farmers told him that while they didn't favor ditching the North American Free Trade Agreement (which has brought Mexico breweries to Montana looking to buy barley), they do want it retooled.

Wheat trade with Canada has been a one-way street with Canadians trucking quality wheat into Montana for full-value sale, while Canadians grade all U.S. grain as animal feed quality, making sales into Canada pointless.

Ryan McCormick, speaking for the Montana Grain Growers Association, said a trade deal with Japan was crucial for the state's wheat farmers, who since 2007 have had more $1 billion wheat years than in any other time in history. Nearly 80 percent of Montana's wheat is exported and most is shipped to Asian Pacific buyers, namely Japan.

Wheat producers were counting on the Trans Pacific Partnership to level the playing field for U.S. wheat sales to Japan, where Australia and Canada have better trade terms. All three countries were part of the 13-nation trade agreement that Congress rejected and ultimately declared dead with the end of the Barack Obama presidency.

President Donald Trump declared TPP a terrible trade deal during the 2016 election and vowed not to pursue it once elected.

Perdue told The Gazette the TPP terms the U.S. and other would-be partners agreed upon would be used to craft bilateral trade agreements with individual countries, starting with Japan.

"I think there's some momentum building that other countries feel like this is someone they can do business with," Perdue said. "They want to know we're there economically, we're there from a security standpoint and we're really true partners. Japan has been a great ally for a number of years, and they want to make sure they can depend on us, and we want to make sure we can depend on them. The president is very serious about balancing the trade deficit, though, and they have a lot more to lose than we do in that regard."

Beef

Perdue said negotiations to allow U.S. beef into China for the first time in 14 years are down to a couple of things. The Chinese only want beef from the United States that originated in the United States.

That's significant because beef practices under NAFTA have allowed Canadian and Mexican cattle to be slaughtered in U.S. packing plants with U.S. beef since the early 1990s. The beef industry united with Canada to undo U.S. country of origin labeling, arguing that U.S. branding was prejudiced and that keeping Mexican and Canadian cattle separate from U.S. beef in slaughterhouses was impractical.

Other demands by China weren't as significant, like setting a 30-month age limit on cattle slaughtered, or not using ractopamine, a leaning agent, on export cattle. Similar restrictions have been imposed by other trading partners.

Perdue credited Daines for working to open the China market to U.S. beef, and for working on advancing trade terms with Japan. Daines traveled to both countries earlier this year.

The secretary will appear Thursday in Great Falls at an agricultural summit organized by Daines. About 700 are expected to attend.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.