SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Stockmen will begin airlifting hay to hundreds of horses left to starve in Montana after their owner’s prestigious breeding operation went out of business, authorities said on Wednesday.
The target of the airdrop and an ongoing effort to truck tons of hay to a 2,000-acre fenced enclosure near Billings in south central Montana are roughly 350 horses whose condition has been steadily deteriorating since the onset of winter and in the absence of food and water.
The 350 horses are part of a larger herd estimated from 500 to 700 head. Hunger forced the other animals to break through fenced pastures and onto the rest of the 40,000 owned and leased acres that once made up the Home Place Ranch operated by James Leachman of Billings.
Law enforcement officials have charged Leachman, 68, with five counts of animal cruelty in what they say is a continuing investigation that may produce more charges.
The accusations against Leachman stem from the discovery in December and January of horses that endured such neglect and abuse that two of the five were killed to relieve their suffering and another three died of injuries shortly after authorities had evaluated them, according to legal documents.
The evidence pinned to the five dead horses included a mare that had been hobbling on the exposed bone of its ankle on a leg that a veterinarian determined had been broken for as long as a year, authorities said.
“These animals were mistreated,” said Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito.
Leachman, whose specialty was quarter horses favored by ranchers and whose stock was prized in the area for its champion bloodlines, had not been seen since early November on the ranch property he lost last year in foreclosure, according to a report by the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s a very complex and confusing incident,” Twito said.
Justin Mills, head of the Northern International Livestock Exposition, the trade association in Billings coordinating the feeding operation for the starving horses, said he has fieldedcalls from as far away as Florida from people who want to buy hay or otherwise help fund the feeding program.
The group expects its collection of hay will grow to 200 tons by Saturday, which will supply the 350 pastured horses for three weeks.
Mills said the fenced animals are the focus of immediate aid since they are in the worst condition. Government agencies have yet to decide how to round up the rest of the herd.
A telephone listing for Leachman was out of service on Wednesday. An attorney who has represented Leachman on other matters did not respond to telephone and email requests for comment.
Court records show Leachman’s legal troubles, including failure of a cow-calf operation known as Leachman Cattle Co., came to a head last July when his ranch was auctioned for $2.6 million by U.S. marshals.
The ranch’s new owners said Leachman left hundreds of horses on the property, finally forcing them to alert officials about the declining health of the animals, according to a sworn statement by a Yellowstone County investigator.
Leachman is scheduled for an initial court appearance in Billings on Friday. Each of the five misdemeanor charges carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Bohan