SHEPHERD, Mont. - Bothered by the way a national livestock group was spending some of the money raised from a federally mandated fee on cattle they sold, Steve and Jeanne Charter refused to pay it.
They say they were trying to make a point - and never believed their small protest might one day threaten their livelihood.
Three years after the eastern Montana ranchers first refused to pay the $1-per-head ''checkoff'' on 247 cattle, they face $12,000 in civil penalties and an expensive legal battle. They're among a handful of ranchers involved in civil lawsuits filed by the government for refusing to pay the fee that is used to fund beef promotions and research.
''It's wrong for people to treat us like common criminals,'' Jeanne Charter said at her ranch home near the small town of Shepherd, north of Billings. ''It's just our own economic self interest as independent producers we're trying to protect.''
Backers of the fee say producers like the Charters benefit from the checkoff without paying their fair share.
''I'm sure you can find people that are sympathetic to (the Charters), but I think you'll find a lot of people that aren't,'' said Larry Switzer, a rancher near Richey.
''They are trying to destroy the checkoff because they don't support the policy,'' he said. ''I think they're taking an erroneous track in reaching their ultimate goal.''
The Charters and others who have refused to pay say the National Cattlemen's Beef Association uses the money to champion its own agenda - one they say favors large meat packers and producers over family ranchers.
One of the most recognizable efforts the checkoff has funded is the ''Beef. It's What's For Dinner'' advertising campaign. Funds also are used for research into food safety and raising better, healthier beef.
The Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board, which collects part of the fee, says everybody must pay.
''Everybody pays because everybody benefits in the long run,'' said Steve Barratt, director of collections and compliance for the board.
When the Beef Promotion and Research Act was passed by Congress in 1985, it contained a refund provision for people who didn't want to pay, but producers did away with that three years later in a national vote.
State beef councils keep 50 cents of every dollar of the fee, which is collected each time cattle are sold. The promotion and research board gets the rest, and most of that share goes to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
The checkoff generated about $88 million in the last fiscal year, Barratt said.
Besides the handful involved in lawsuits, about 100 others who have refused to pay are in negotiations in efforts to avoid lawsuits, Barratt said. That's out of more than 1 million dairy and beef producers nationwide.
Some producers suspect they have been singled out because of their vocal opposition to the checkoff and their disdain for the association.
''They'll get me, make an example of me and frighten everybody else. They want to buy our silence,'' said Wallace McRae, a prominent eastern Montana rancher who faces legal action for failure to pay.
The Charters have resumed paying the fee but are challenging its constitutionality in federal court, arguing that it violates their right to free association and free speech as independent producers.
''We thought somebody had to call them on this,'' Jeanne Charter said. ''This time, we're betting they're going to lose. We took them to court because we think we'll win.''
People who don't comply with the checkoff can face a civil penalty up to $5,500 per transaction, plus interest on unpaid checkoffs. Administrative law judges have interpreted the penalty to mean per each animal.
The Charters point to a case involving a checkoff on mushrooms that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to address. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the tax violated the First Amendment. Mushrooms are not regulated by USDA and growers cannot be forced to pay for generic advertising, the court said.
The Charters' attorney, Kelly Varnes, said if the Supreme Court upholds the appeals court ruling it could force USDA to review all its checkoff programs.
A USDA spokeswoman declined to comment on the pending legal cases.
The agency last year received petitions carrying the signatures of 126,000 producers asking for a nationwide vote on whether the checkoff should continue. The agency recently asked an outside firm to validate the signatures.
Surveys for the Cattlemen's Beef Board over the past six years show support for the checkoff has not fallen below 60 percent, Barratt said.
On the Net:
USDA Beef Checkoff Program: http://www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/mpb/beef/beefchk.htm
Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board: http://www.beefboard.org