A new ballot measure aimed at cracking down on the illegal trade in items from illegally poached wildlife is a unique chance for the industry to highlight the difference between ‘them’ and ‘us.’

The broad agenda of the animal rights community can cause problems for members of the livestock industry. It's not because producers or ranchers are opposed to measures that genuinely protect wildlife or reign in the abuses that occur among hunters or pet breeders, but because a sweeping agenda of “animal advocacy” ensnares everyone in the condemnations properly reserved for poachers, developers and other profiteers.

Understandably, there is righteous anger among livestock producers and feeders when activists foam at the mouth about “abuses” that try to link the exploitation of circus animals, the illegal hunting of endangered species and the cruelty inherent in the operation of way too many puppy mills with the alleged excesses of factory farming.

All three of those animal issues are, in fact, vastly different in terms of who the bad guys are and what interventions might make a difference. And none of them are connected with the activities of the vast majority of North American ranchers, produces and feeders.

That makes it difficult for those engaged in animal agriculture to draw a line between the legitimate concerns about threatened habitats, endangered species and the exploitation of wildlife to a black market in pelts, horns, tusks and other body parts. It also results in unfounded attacks on livestock production practices that, in fact, improve ecosystems, maintain green space and support a sustainable system of food production badly needed in a world approaching 8 billion mouths to feed.

Last of their breeds

That said, an initiative underway in Washington state offers exactly such a possibility: A chance for the livestock industry to draw the line between the legitimate profession of animal husbandry and the illegitimate activities associated with the hunting, killing and butchering of dozens of endangered species around the world.

The effort is the proposed Initiative 1401, currently collecting the signatures needed to place the measure on the statewide ballot next month. Initiative 1401 would close loopholes in the sale of animal parts and allow law enforcement to crack down on the traders marketing products harvested from endangered species, such as rhinos, elephants, tigers, lions and cheetahs.

Without aggressive measures to halt the hunting and sale of ivory, horns, pelts, and other body parts, every single one of those species is projected to become extinct within the next 20 years. Already, only 3,200 tigers remain alive in the world; more than 30,000 elephants are poached annually for their tusks; and 90% of the world’s cheetahs have been killed for their fur in the just the last 10 years.

Initiative 1401 is a golden opportunity for animal agriculture to take a principled stand against the exploitation of these iconic wildlife species — and make clear to the public the distinction between professional producers and the criminals responsible for the death and destruction of the world’s most recognizable wild animals.

Yes, 1401 is supported by organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States and the National Resources Defense Council, groups that have been historically opposed to the practices and even the very existence of livestock production. But 1401 is a common-sense measure that is supported by conservation groups, law enforcement and by both the Washington state Democrats and the mainstream Republicans of Washington.

Not to mention that its primary funder is billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, not a bad guy to have on your side.

If enough signatures are collected for the initiative to qualify for the ballot — a likely development — the measure is almost certain to pass by a substantial margin. I mean, who’s opposed to saving lions and tigers and elephants from extinction?

This is a chance for industry to get onboard with a highly popular cause, and at the same time, make clear that a Grand Canyon-sized gulf exists between those who produce meat, poultry and dairy products and the criminals engaged in the gruesome business of poaching and marketing the body parts of the Earth’s most endangered animals.

It’s the kind of win-win that only comes along once in a great while.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.