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The Yellowstone County Attorney's Office on Friday filed five primary misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty and five alternative counts against James H. Leachman of Billings.

But the legal action may have come too late to save many of the estimated 450 horses starving to death on a ranch east of Billings.

Two horses were humanely shot by a county sheriff's lieutenant last Saturday. Unless the surviving horses are fed, Shepherd veterinarian Jeff Peila said the horses will start dying in droves within the next two weeks. It isn't clear who will feed the horses or if they can be adopted.

Leachman, who bred cattle in Montana for nearly four decades and turned to horses when his cattle empire collapsed, faces a total maximum of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said the charges are part of what may be the largest horse abuse case in Montana history.

"This is just a horrible situation, and we'll try to do whatever we can to help the horses," he said.

Twito said that as soon as possible he would call a meeting of the government agencies involved, along with ranchers surrounding the former Leachman Home Place Ranch, which has about 9,400 deeded acres and 30,000 leased Crow tribal lands.

The five primary charges of negligently failing to provide veterinary care, food or water to helpless animals are "stacked" so they collectively carry a maximum five-year, $5,000 penalty. The charges can be converted later to a felony charge.

The five dead horses cited as evidence include a young mare with what appeared to be a broken leg on Dec. 29 and later found dead Jan. 15; a black mare nursing a colt; an old bay mare nursing a colt that couldn't walk because marking bands placed on her front legs strangled her circulation as she grew; a buckskin mare with a colt with a severe cut tendon; and a 1- to 2-year-old black-blue roan mare that had been walking on her ankle bone for a year after apparently breaking her leg.

Peila, who examined the horses Dec. 29 at the request of investigators, said about 350 of the horses in the 2,600-acre Tschirgi pasture hadn't eaten much for a month.

"It's horrible. They're all starving to death," Peila said Wednesday. "The first time I was up there Dec. 29, (the horses) were running the fence. They wanted out. They had nothing to eat then, and their condition has really deteriorated."

Leachman was served with the charges early Friday evening and will be ordered to appear in Justice Court.

He said Friday evening that he expects to be vindicated. He said Turk Stovall, who is managing the Home Place Ranch with his wife, Jenny, has been interfering with the horses.

"Part of the interference inflicted by Stovall on me includes the unauthorized and inhumane moving, intermingling and locking up of my horses. That has included, but is not limited to, the very same horses referred to in the charges: all the horses who had been sorted off by us in case they needed professional care or needed to be disposed of," Leachman said.

In a lengthy interview with The Billings Gazette on Dec. 4, Leachman denied that his horses were starving. They have always ranged on winter pasture and done well on the Home Place ranch 16 miles east of Billings along Highway 87E, he said. But he lost his ranch last July at a U.S. Marshals Service foreclosure sale when the neighboring Stovall family paid $2.6 million for the ranch. Getting the money to buy it back by July is his focus.

"My game plan now, in general, is to get through the redemption of the ranch and plan on having an orderly horse sale, which would probably entail or include a reduction in the horse numbers," he said. "And ideally, I would have a nucleus to go forward."

All the horses were meticulously sorted for a fall sale, he said, but the Stovalls mixed them up again and they keep moving his horses around without his permission, so he doesn't know where they all are to feed or doctor them. Leachman said the Stovalls are jealous of his skills with genetics and for years have been out to get his ranch and his Crow tribal leases.

The Stovalls can't feed the horses because they don't own them, are wary of getting sued, and need the hay and land for their own livestock. Leachman was supposed to remove his horses six months ago when he lost the ranch, Stovall said, a point Leachman disputes. And Stovall is frustrated at the slow pace of public agencies in dealing with the horse problem that has been festering for at least a year.

"We've got to protect our grass and all the hay we bought for our cows," Turk Stovall said. "We've done about everything we can think of."

Stovall and his hired hand could gather up the horses in a day, but a roundup doesn't seem to be in the cards, either.

"We're trying to get this done as fast as possible," Twito said. "It is frustrating, but at the end of the day, this could have been taken care of by Mr. Leachman."

On Jan. 15, Peila, along with a deputy county attorney, two sheriff's deputies and a Montana Department of Livestock manager, returned to the ranch with legal authority to deal with the worst of the horses. The vet had Yellowstone County Sheriff Lt. Kent O'Donnell mercy shoot an old bay mare that Peila called a "sack of bones." The mare lies in a prairie dog town in the Fighter pasture, but the body hadn't been touched yet — the coyotes, cougars and magpies were apparently spooked off by the hum of the high-voltage power lines overhead.

O'Donnell also shot a mare that had been walking on her ankle bone for a year or more after apparently breaking her leg as a baby.

This is big country and finding the bodies ate up a half-day, covering 30 miles in a chained-up pickup. One banded horse was found near Woody Mountain.

"I saw that horse standing on the hill by Woody Mountain, the magpies pecking at him, and two days later I found him lying in the draw, feeding the coyotes," ranch hand Kenny Kukowski said.

All ranchers lose a small percentage of stock running on the range, but this death could have been avoided, Peila said.

"It's poor livestock management to band the horses and turn them out into the damn wilderness," he said.

No one yet knows how many horses are roaming the vast range, including deeded and Crow tribal lands near the Pryor Mountains. What is different about this winter is that these horses cannot roam freely to find grass because Leachman doesn't control the land anymore.

The Stovalls started calving heifers last week, so most of the horses are confined on the Tschirgi with no grass left. Only yucca spikes, wisps of cheat grass and sagebrush — a last meal for a horse — poke through the snow and ice. Winter coats can hide a lot, but these pasture horses show sucked up bellies, skinny necks and protruding hip bones.

More than 100 horses have broken through barbed-wire fences and are roaming on neighboring ranches or on Crow tribal land where they have a much better chance of surviving the winter, Peila said.

After telling a bankruptcy judge last winter that he had no income after the collapse of the Leachman Cattle Co., and a price collapse in the horse markets, Leachman said he would hold his annual fall Hairpin Cavvy sale.

That didn't happen.

"I planned on having a sale this fall, I just couldn't have it. Sure, I could have it if I wanted to sell my horses for 200 bucks," he said in December.

On Dec. 3, the horses in the pasture were wild and strong enough that they ran through 2- to 3-foot drifts to flee when they spotted a pickup a mile away. Last Saturday, a band of mares barely moved when the truck came within 150 yards.

Who is in charge of ensuring the health of the horses isn't simple.

The joke among ranchers on the reservation is that there is little law out there, due mostly to the checkerboard mix of deeded or private land and Crow tribal lands. And the fences follow the water and grass, not property lines, making it tricky to know whether you're on private or tribal lands.

Because the Crow Tribe is a sovereign nation, county, state and federal officials have limited authority on lease lands.

"The sheriff won't come, the Crow tribal police won't come, the BIA won't come and the brand inspector won't come, but the FBI will come if you die," the joke goes.

The reality is that multiple law enforcement agencies are players on the reservation.

The Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office is in charge of animal abuse cases, but it isn't set up to handle horses.

"Look at us. Do you see any cowboys here or horse trailers?" then-Undersheriff Seth Weston said in December when it was becoming clear the horses were in danger.

The Sheriff's Office is in charge of the investigation, and the Montana Department of Livestock is assisting.

Last fall, Montana Department of Livestock Eastern Area Manager Travis Elings hauled his personal water tank to 14 Leachman stallions that were apparently living on morning dew.

"It was a bad, bad deal. Them horses were thirsty, thirsty. We had to beat them off with ropes to fill the tanks," Elings said in December.

Leachman said his horses had water until Stovall's hired hand moved them into a pasture without water.

What happens next with the horses isn't clear. Twito said his office lacks the authority to pay for a roundup.

"If you look at the roundup provision in statute, it requires the adjoining landowners or livestock association to pay," Twito said. "If I could wave a magic wand and help those horses, I would in a heartbeat, but I'm bound to enforce the law."

In December 2008, Yellowstone County rescued about 200 neglected dogs and 30 other animals on Linda Kapsa's Ballantine farm and fed and cared for the animals until the case was concluded and the animals could be adopted. The cost of caring for the animals topped $255,000, including $44,000 in donations.

But horses are a lot harder to handle.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which apparently manages the Tschirgi pasture on tribal lands, and the Crow Tribe haven't responded to Freedom of Information Act letters or recent requests for comment.

"In my opinion, the BIA has the easy power to snap to it, but nobody wants to pay the bill to feed those horses and to deal with Leachman," Peila said.

Each horse needs 30 pounds of hay a day, he said, which would run $1,600 to $1,800 per day to feed all of them. That doesn't include vet fees and the costs of hauling hay and water to the remote Crow Reservation hills. The horses are eating snow now, but they can't eat hay without water to drink or they'll die. Hay has no moisture, grass does.

"Now is the quiet downhill. A month ago, they were not that bad. Now, they're really suffering," Peila said. "I think we'll see a lot of dead horses in two weeks and a lot of suffering in between."

Although he admits it's a long-shot politically, the vet said time has run out, so in his opinion all the horses in pasture need to be kicked out to other ranches and tribal lands to survive until July when the ranch redemption issue is settled.

"These are his horses, and as the owner, he is responsible to God and everybody to take care of those animals," Peila said. "It appears for some reason Leachman is neglecting everything and waiting for someone else to do something."

Contact Jan Falstad at of 406-657-1306.