Big sky, bigger abuse 

Montana's shameful animal problems

We seem to have a morbid fascination with news stories and photographs of dead, dying, or distressed animals—something Montana has provided plenty of in the past two years. The number of animals involved has been staggering, the evidence of abuse extreme.

The first such news on a grand scale came last February, when a man in north-central Montana was accused of abandoning over 200 goats to starvation. Sheriff's deputies who arrived on the scene were sickened at the sight of dead animals piled in drifts against fences. The perpetrator was recently fined $17,000, and sentenced to six years of jail time deferred.

The next big story broke in northwestern Montana, when an animal-rescue ranch went broke. Nearly a thousand assorted animals, from potbellied pigs and llamas to a cow named "Molly B," an escapee from a meatpacking plant, were found suffering from malnutrition and neglect when the ranch manager finally called for help. The last of the animals to leave were two Bactrian camels that were less than thrilled with the idea of being loaded into a trailer. The ranch went on the auction block shortly after that.

The most recent case involved a rancher in south-central Montana. He had been a high roller in the cattle genetics business for a number of years until being forced to leave that business under the threat of several lawsuits. He re-invented himself as a quarter horse breeder in 2002 and spent thousands of dollars on lavish auction parties each year at his ranch. In its glory days, his operation spread over nearly 15,000 acres of deeded land and 30,000 acres of leased land. He finally went bankrupt and lost both of his ranches.

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The neighbors who purchased the largest of those ranches at a U.S Marshal's auction last summer moved in with their cattle and pushed more than 700 horses onto a remote area of the property that couldn't support them through the winter. The new owners maintained that the horses were not their responsibility, while the rancher insisted that he could keep his horses on the property until a one-year redemption period expires next summer. The courts ordered the breeder to liquidate the stock to pay creditors, but with horse prices tanking, he never got around to rounding them up.

This January, sheriff's deputies visited the area and found a number of dead horses, and more that needed to be destroyed. Publicity bought some time for the remaining animals as donations of hay and cash poured in. Over the next two months, $50,000 was spent feeding and watering the horses until their rib cages began to fill out. The owner faces 14 counts of animal abuse for the horses that died or were likely to die. The case is scheduled for jury trial in June.

Meanwhile, the Crow Tribe complained to the Bureau of Indian Affairs that many of those neglected horses had been illegally eating reservation grass for several years. After the Crow Agency conducted an old-fashioned Montana roundup at BIA expense, 829 horses thundered into corrals to be sorted, brand-inspected, and checked by veterinarians in preparation for sale. The owner had an opportunity to redeem his animals right up until the day of the auction.

Horse blogs were abuzz with news of the BIA auction, and as a result, a number of past issues with the breeder came to light. Apparently, as early as 2004, registration papers for horses purchased at the lavish ranch sales were nearly impossible to obtain. Despite the registration problems, buyers flocked to Montana from all parts of the country and Canada, and a thousand curious onlookers swelled the crowd on the day of the auction. The BIA announced gross proceeds of $380,000 from the auction, but declared that after all expenses including rangeland damages were totaled up, the agency and the Crow Tribe probably lost money.

The good news is that nearly all of the horses on the block found homes. The bad news is that one of the successful bidders on nearly 70 of the horses was the son of the breeder charged with abuse. He was apparently acting as a purchasing agent for his father, who showed up with a certified check to claim the horses, even though he no longer owns or leases property suitable for sustaining a herd of that size.

His reclaimed stock includes both studs and mares—almost guaranteeing a repeat performance of this High Plains horse opera with its tragic cast.

Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Roundup, where she's a pilot and freelance writer.

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