A nonprofit organization based in Colorado, the American Humane Association, donated $20,000 on Monday toward caring for as many as 700 of the James Leachman horses on private and Crow Reservation land east of Billings.
And the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs is getting involved now to help find a solution, said Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito.
Monday's largest donation so far pushed the rescue fund, being collected by the Northern International Livestock Exposition Foundation, over the $50,000 mark.
Debrah Schnackenberg, vice president of the American Humane Association's Red Star Animal Emergency Services program, said her organization raised $20,000 in a couple of days for what's being called Operation Home Place.
"We know our donors are very concerned about horses in America, and we got a quick response," she said.
"This (Montana) situation is really unique. It's a complicated story and it's not the typical horse operation we usually work on."
The grant is one of the largest that her non-profit has made, she said.
The American Humane Association, based in Englewood, Colo., was formed in 1903 to help end "abuse and neglect of children and animals." The association was rescuing horses from European battlefields during World War I, she said, so it has a long, but relatively unknown, track record.
NILE Executive Director Justin Mills said the donation is welcome.
"We wanted to partner with someone who supports production agriculture," Mills said.
According to the Better Business Bureau in Spokane, Wash., which serves Montana, the Humane Association meets all 20 standards for accountability for charities. For the year ending June 30, 2010, the nonprofit reported income of nearly $15.6 million, of which 79 percent was spent on programs.
Most of the hundreds of hungry horses are grazing on the former Leachman Cattle Co. ranch 16 miles east of Billings, south of Highway 87 East. But, they also have wandered onto a handful of surrounding ranches and Crow Reservation tribal lands.
Because some of the pastures are tribal lands leased to area ranchers, the BIA has jurisdiction and could help the horses faster than the county can, Twito said recently.
During a meeting on Friday, the BIA vowed to help, Twito said.
However, what the BIA could do, and when, is unknown at this point, Twito said.
Many of the remotest horses got their first hay last Thursday, airlifted in by the Billings Flying Service. And, more food was delivered by tractor and truck over the weekend, so the horses have plenty to eat for a couple of days, said Yellowstone County Undersheriff Kevin Evans.
Fresh snow is on the ground, and the temperatures will be in the mid-40s by Friday, so officials aren't concerned about water right now.
On Jan. 21, the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office charged Leachman of Billings with 10 counts of animal cruelty. The charges were based on five dead horses, including two that were crippled by neglected plastic marking bands around their front legs.
Last Friday in Justice Court, Leachman pleaded not guilty to all five main and five alternative misdemeanor counts and said he wants a jury trial. His horses have been successfully running free on the range for years, he said.
The Home Place ranch was sold at a federal foreclosure sale last July to the Stovall Holding Co., but Leachman's company has a chance to raise enough money to buy the ranch back by July.
No one knows how long the horses will need extra help, which makes planning difficult, Mills said. With 500 tons of hay promised already, no more feed is currently needed, he said.
"What we're going to need financially will depend a lot on the time this lasts, if we get into more cold weather or not," Mills said.