International Society for the Preservation of Mustangs and Burros working to re-home, manage 800 horses after vet found neglect on its South Dakota ranch
One square mile. Six hundred eighty acres. A little over one section.
That’s the size of the ranch that is home to 810 horses in Dewey and Ziebach counties in western South Dakota.
The International Society for the Preservation of Mustangs and Burros runs the ranch that straddles the county line between Ziebach and Dewey counties near Lantry, South Dakota. Their website says, “Photographers and journalists from National Geographic, Vanity Fair, and other publications have all enjoyed the African theme guest room overlooking the summer wildflowers, winter snows, and of course the best view of all – the 500 wild mustangs on this famously photographed 680-acre ranch.”
On Sept. 8, 2016, Boyd Stambach, manager of the local feed store, filed a complaint with the South Dakota Animal Industry Board, saying the horses hadn’t had hay for a month and many were thin.
“I’d had numerous customers coming in every day, complaining about the poor horses and how bad everything looks. I drive by every day and I knew,” Stambach said.
On Sept. 14, SDAIB vet Dr. Marc Hammrich and Dewey County sheriff Les Mayer made an unannounced visit, at which point the president of ISPMB and manager of the ranch, Karen Sussman, admitted they’d had problems with donations and were struggling, but the horses were getting fed, according to Hammrich’s report.
Hammrich reported that there was an obvious lack of feed and the horses were nosing through the dried manure looking for hay. He noted many horses with a body condition score of 2/3 out of 1-9 on the Heineke Body Condition Score scale, with 1 being emaciated and 9 being morbidly obese.
He noted that the body condition of many of the horses had declined since his last visit in March. He estimated that overall 10 percent or more of the horses were at a body condition of 1-3 and were at risk of not surviving the winter as managed.
Hammrich wrote in his report, “A prudent owner would put in hay reserves in anticipation for the winter season, but funds apparently are not available to do this at this time. Weather events can and do occur frequently in the early winter months, which would prevent all feed delivery options and that could result in a critical situation and jeopardize the well-being of the entire herd. Hay procurement needs to be completed immediately. Many animals are not receiving adequate hoof care. Ownership does not appear to have the means, money, labor and facilities to support and manage a population of animals this size and does not appear to have adequate plans to assure the future of this herd. Based on my findings as outlined in this report, it is my determination that animal neglect is present at this facility.”
A few weeks later an employee, Coleen Burns, released a 16-page report, with photos, documenting about 30 cases of death from malnutrition, plus wounds and injuries not being addressed and overgrown hooves. The majority of those deaths were the very young or very old, the horses that would be pushed away when feed is scarce.
In 2015, Burns left a corporate career in Arizona to be a project manager for ISPMB, at a pay cut. “It wasn’t about the money for me. If it were I would have stayed in Phoenix.” When she arrived at the ranch she realized a lot of key components of running a business, from a branding and marketing standpoint, were missing. She started to work with Sussman to develop those elements. “A lot of what I ended up doing was feeding horses, watering horses, working on the computer. I worked 12-16 hour days.”
Burns had volunteered with ISPMB in Arizona at a small sanctuary Sussman was running, before she moved to South Dakota.
“The organization has kind of been in an emergency management mode since before I got here. I wasn’t aware of that until after the fact,” Burns said.
In April or May, Sussman started expressing concerns about being unable to pay for hay, Burns said. “I’d find us hay on the hay exchange. She’d say we couldn’t go to that person. I started to learn there were some people she couldn’t deal with because they hadn’t been paid. It became more and more dire to get hay here. There were maybe one to two days where the horses ran out. When we’d ask about hay she’d say, ‘It’ll be here tomorrow.’ Tomorrow, the hay wouldn’t show up. I’d think there were just delays. It happened more and more often. The horses started to lose weight…When the horses started to die, I really started to push Karen about the situation. When I told her horses had died, she said she didn’t want to hear about it.”
Another former employee, ranch hand Fred Rowley, corroborated Burns’ documentation. Rowley has been a ranch hand most of his life, working with horses, cattle, sheep and pigs, “I’ve never seen anything like this. There is absolutely no grass. Prairie dogs everywhere. That’s every pasture. It’s bare dirt. Any direction the wind blows is just a big ol’ dust cloud.”
Rowley said there were skinny horses, horses with “huge wounds, bad feet. She [Sussman] acts like they’re fine. There was a horse with a broken leg and she went hysterical when we suggested putting it out of its misery. We’d mention improvements or something, Karen would say there’s nothing wrong with her management because she’s been doing it for years.”
Both Burns and Rowley were fired after the document was released, and Rowley helped Burns move her horse off the place.
“She (Sussman) used to buy feed all the time,” Stambach said. “At one point she was buying Purina senior feed by the ton about once a week. Hardly anybody locally will sell her hay. There are guys who will sell on a load-by-load basis. There are a couple of them that said she owes $6,000 to $7,000. By the time you get court costs and pay a lawyer, they just as well suck it up.”
This isn’t the first time the organization had faced an issue with their finances.
According to the Dewey County register of deeds office, in 2012, a lien was released from the property. Stambach said that lien was for money owed for hay. Also in 2012, the title of the property was transferred from Sussman’s name to John Christopher Fine, who lives in New York.
The horses came from four different ranges that were not included in the BLM protections for wild horses under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. They were removed from the range and the ISPMB began adopting them and doing research. Part of their research was to keep each of the groups in their original family bands, hypothesizing that if the families were kept together, the reproduction rate would drop, according to the ISPMB website.
After 16 years, they claimed to have a reproduction rate of 7 to 8 percent, much lower than the 20 percent the BLM reports for horses on the range, which are part of bands that have been involved in roundups.
No horses were removed from the property, no additional property was acquired, no stallions were gelded and no birth control methods were used. They were run exactly as they would be in the wild, but on 680 acres.
Burns said they didn’t know exactly how many horses were on the place because it’s difficult to count them, but estimated about 600 to 650. The final tally after all the horses had been vet inspected was 810.
Stambach said that in that area, they usually figure 30 acres per AUM. A horse is considered 1.5 AUM in most cases, so each horse would require 45 acres. With those figures, the carrying capacity of the place is about 15 horses.
The organization is funded primarily with donations and fundraisers, according to their tax returns.
Their nonprofit tax status classifies them as an “organization to prevent cruelty to animals” with an activity code of “Preservation of natural resources (conservation).” In 2014 their reported income was about $700,000 and their liabilities were nearly $1 million, according to the 990 forms posted on Guidestar.com. In 2003 the organization reported total revenue of about $68,000 and expenses of $95,000.
The Court’s Decision
Oct. 7, Sussman appeared in circuit court in Ziebach County, where she signed an agreement with the state’s attorneys of Ziebach and Dewey County, since her property is in both counties.
The agreement filed in court stipulated that the counties would care for the horses for two weeks or until a management plan could be put into place to provide for the horses. It also required all the horses be inspected by a veterinarian from the SDAIB, at which point they would be divided into three categories: those that are in adequate physical condition to withstand the winter without special care; those that could be brought back to a condition that would enable them to withstand the winter with supplemental feed or care; and those that are unlikely to be able to withstand the winter without suffering, even with additional care.
When the sorting was completed, 25 were sorted out to receive special care and one was euthanized, said Dr. Dustin Oedekoven, South Dakota state veterinarian.
The agreement also specified that the ISPMB could seek to have some or all of the animals returned to their care, provided they complete a comprehensive management plan by Oct. 21. The plan has been submitted and is being reviewed by the SDAIB and the two state’s attorneys. It has not been publicly released.
The management plan must include: a comprehensive financial plan for 18 months, starting Nov. 1, 2016, projecting expenses for feeding, care, maintenance and control; a detailed summary of the type and amount of feed and supplements and source for the feed and supplements for 18 months; a detailed summary of how the feed and supplements would be delivered; a comprehensive veterinary care plan; a description of all structures and facilities available for protection of the animals from the elements; an end-of-life plan for identifying animals that are in a physical condition that makes them likely to suffer due to age, illness, injuries or other physical condition, including how they will be humanely euthanized and disposed of.
The ISPMB has until Nov. 11, 2016 to show proof of adequate funds or feed to carry out the management plan, if it is approved. The proof of funds cannot include grants or donations that have not been received. They must also reimburse the counties for any expenses they have incurred on behalf of the ISPMB horses. So far the county has spent about $70,000 on feed, plus $240 a day for someone to feed them, said Sheriff Mayer.
The money the county is spending comes from the county’s contingency fund, which is usually used in times of natural disaster or other unforeseen circumstances, such as a fire or flood. This will nearly drain the $100,000 fund, Mayer said.
If the ISPMB has not provided an approved management plan, and provided proof of adequate feed and funds on hand by Nov. 11, 2016, they will have until Dec. 1 to adopt out as many hoses as possible. Any not adopted by Dec. 1 will be sold at public auction.
The ISPMB has started a Facebook page to adopt out the horses, from free to $5,000. One post says, “Please adopt at least two horses, so herd buddies can stay together. For every horse you choose, please allow ISPMB to identify its buddy and make it your second choice. To adopt only one horse, please specify on your adoption application that you can’t accept the horse’s buddy with it.”
Some transportation companies have offered free or reduced price transportation for horses that are being adopted.
The adoption contract requires that the adopter “agree to allow any member of the ISPMB, as directed by its Council Circle, to monitor the animal, from time to time, and take immediate possession of the animal if the ISPMB determines, in its discretion that I have, at any time, neglected, abused, or failed to provide adequate care for the animal.” It also prohibits sale for slaughter and requires the adopter to notify the ISPM of injury, illness, death or intent to euthanize the adopted horses.
Sussman did not respond to requests for an interview.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News