Spy drones, animal-rights activists and feedyard vandalism have complicated USDA’s efforts to provide transparency in research programs at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC) in Clay Center, Nebraska.

Earlier this week, we reported that USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) would be hosting three groups – general stakeholders, producers and animal welfare advocates – for tours and listening sessions at the USMARC facility on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Prior to those events, animal-rights activists apparently set up camp in Clay Center and, on November 6 flew at least one remote-controlled drone and possibly manned aircraft over the USMARC facility.

The listening sessions, and “extracurricular activities,” come in response to fallout from a New York Times article published in January 2015, titled “U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit.” The article was widely criticized in the scientific community for its lack of context and corroboration of claims of animal mistreatment. Nevertheless, it prompted calls for internal and external reviews of practices at the center.

In September, USDA’s Inspector General’s office released an interim report, outlining its findings in its investigation into the claims in the New York Times article. The interim report, based on observations and interviews with past and present USMARC employees, shows that animal-management practices at the facility, along with animal morbidity and mortality rates, generally are in line with industry standards and trends.

Not everyone was pleased with the groups invited to the listening sessions. According to a report from the Omaha World Herald, Nebraska’s Governor Pete Ricketts has written a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack objecting to USDA inviting animal-rights groups opposed to animal agriculture, including the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to the session. “I respectfully submit that an open-door effort will be wasted on groups whose main goal is the complete destruction of food animal agriculture. The feedback you will receive from these groups will be continued unwarranted criticism of the fine men and women at MARC and their research,” Ricketts wrote.

Also, as we noted in the earlier article, a remote-controlled drone was seen flying over the USMARC facility on Friday, Nov. 6. According to the Omaha World Herald article, when Clay County Sheriff Jeff Franklin responded to the drone reports he was confronted by camera-carrying members of an animal-rights group called Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), who apparently were operating the drone to photograph operations at the research center.

Sheriff Franklin’s office also responded to an apparent break-in and vandalism at an area feedyard, which is not associated with USMARC, over the weekend. Someone entered the feedyard during the night and allegedly opened a number of internal pen gates, allowing cattle to co-mingle throughout the yard. The incident created headaches for the feedyard staff and potentially danger to the cattle involved. As of Nov. 12, no arrests have been made and it is unknown whether animal-rights activists were involved in the incident at the feedyard.