The North Dakota Senate agreed to amend an animal welfare bill on Tuesday to slow the escalation to felony status for animal abuse, neglect or abandonment.

The Senate voted 34-13 for the change, which also would make a group of animals equal one animal for charging purposes. The Senate will take up passage of the bill today.

Senate Bill 2211 is a major overhaul of North Dakota’s animal welfare laws, defining separate types of animal mistreatment, making animal cruelty a felony, setting a penalty for leaving an animal in a vehicle without ensuring its safety and setting out a process for seizing animals. The measure took form after several years of work by North Dakotans for Responsible Animal Care, a partnership of agricultural and animal welfare groups across the state.

The bill, in its original form, would have made animal abuse, neglect or abandonment a misdemeanor for a first offense and a felony for a second or subsequent offense within five years. Amendments approved Tuesday by the Senate keep such charges as misdemeanors for a first or second offense but makes a third offense within 10 years a felony.

Another change approved by the Senate on Tuesday would make mistreatment of any kind to a “band, flock, herd, litter, pack or other collective of same-species animals” a singular incident. That means someone accused of mistreating any number of the same species of animals would face one charge rather than one charge per animal.

Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmont, and Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, spoke in favor of the amendments. Both are members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which added the amendments. Miller explained that the changes would add protections for agricultural producers. He said the proposal would give prosecutors the discretion to charge a single felony in cases of multiple animals being abused.

Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, urged senators to vote down the amendments. Triplett, an attorney, said the portion of the amendment that would make mistreatment of any number of animals a single offense did not seem to provide for prosecutorial discretion but instead would just keep someone from facing multiple offenses.

Sen. David O’Connell, D-Lansford, asked for a vote that could be electronically recorded, instead of a voice vote. Votes on amendments are voice votes unless lawmaker requests otherwise.

The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association was one of the groups that worked on the legislation. The group’s communications director, Sheyna Strommen, said the NDSA “preferred the original language” of SB2211, but was OK with the amendments. She said the Agriculture Committee seemed to have struck a balance for groups that believed animal abuse, neglect and abandonment should not have felony penalties in any case.

Doyle Johannes, president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said his organization offered amendments to strike the felony possibilities for abuse, neglect and abandonment, but when the amendments were not accepted, the Farm Bureau decided to not take a position on the bill.

“We did not lobby the Legislature or anything,” he said. Johannes was surprised to hear that the Senate had approved amendments similar to those presented by the Farm Bureau.

The Farm Bureau felt any case of abuse, neglect or abandonment that was egregious enough should be charged as a felony and that having a felony as a possibility for those offenses seemed like overkill that could lead to people being overcharged, Johannes said.

Reach Jenny Michael at 701-250-8225 or jenny.michael@bismarcktribune.com.