Field of dead horses angers Montanans | TSLN.com

Field of dead horses angers Montanans

Tom Lutey
for Billings Gazette

Some of the carcasses appeared to be recent kills, while one horse had decomposed down to bare ribs. Photo by Larry Meyer

LODGE GRASS, Montana — The discovery of up to two dozen horses shot dead and dumped in a field has angered people in this reservation town.

Residents looking for their missing horses several days ago discovered the dead animals in piles in a hay field roughly a mile west of Lodge Grass.

"That was my son's best friend that got killed," said BethYana Pease-Takes Horse. "He's the one who found him. He's had that horse since he was 5."

Pease-Takes Horse's son is J'Ree Old Bull. The boy's horse, named Tank, discovered Feb. 7 piled with two other horses, was the one J'Ree rode in the full-speed Custer Battlefield Trading Post Little Big Horn Re-enactment. Speckled with magpie droppings, Tank and one of the other animals appeared to be recent kills, while the third horse had decomposed down to bare ribs. Less than five yards away was Alanna Kruger's black filly.

As the women walked the pasture Friday surveying the dead, Kruger spotted a young paint that she'd raised and sold.

"This is the one that I sold to John. John Pretty On Top, the county commissioner," Kruger said. "I bet he doesn't know."

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Police from several law enforcement agencies surveyed the area Feb. 11, after complaints about the killings started appearing on Facebook, with photos. There were several tire tracks along an irrigation ditch where four more animals were found. In some cases, the horse's heads had been cut off. Pease-Takes Horse said the heads were collected by police as evidence.

It wasn't clear Friday if anyone would be charged with killing the animals. Reservation justice is a jurisdictional potpourri of local, state and federal agencies. Big Horn County Attorney Jay Harris said Friday that he hadn't seen a report of killings.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement did not return phone calls from The Gazette on Friday.

Montana livestock officials were part of the investigation launched midweek, but it wasn't clear how the case would proceed, or which agency would be in charge.

Horses roam freely in this small reservation town. A child will mount a roaming horse bareback for a ways and get off when he feels like it, allowing the horse to move on. It's not uncommon to see one in the schoolyard or chewing down the grass on the edge of a potholed road. That's because Lodge Grass, like the rest of Crow Reservation, is open range, a term with legal meaning in the Treasure State.

In Montana, wherever the range is open, livestock owners aren't required to fence animals in. If a landowner doesn't want stray livestock on his property, it's up to him to fence them out.

Killing roaming livestock in open range country is illegal, said Christian Mackay, Montana Department of Livestock executive officer.

Pease-Takes Horse said Tank was fenced inside a pasture not too far from where the dead horses were found. She has a haystack on her land for her own horses. A while ago, a section of her fence gave way under the pressure of snow piled up by a plow, she said. She suspects her son's horse found the opening and went on a walkabout, though she hadn't suspected he was dead.

There were more dead horses to see, Pease-Takes Horse said motioning to a thicket along a shallow creek bed. Where she pointed, the winter gray tree tops were peppered with magpies.

–Reprinted with permission from the Billings Gazette