A former Billings lawmaker's ranch near Ingomar is the subject of a large-scale animal abuse and neglect investigation that began in January, according to the Rosebud County Sheriff's Office.
Sheriff Allen Fulton was notified in January that cattle on the L7 Ranch, owned by former state Republican Rep. Don Roberts, were allegedly being deprived of food and water.
He estimated the ranch contains more than 1,000 head of cattle.
"Someone anonymously called a brand inspector who went out and checked, and we got permission from Roberts to go out and determined there was an issue of animal neglect," Fulton said.
That issue included a lack of access to food and water, he said, but he declined to elaborate further or say whether any animals had died, citing the ongoing investigation.
He emphasized that Roberts has been "very cooperative" with the investigation and that he had immediately fired the ranch manager at the property.
Fulton couldn't remember the last time his office investigated such a large case, but said that ranch-related animal neglect cases have come up periodically in the past.
"We do have it once in a while, but not to this scale," he said. "I don't know if anyone in the state's had it to this scale."
"Roberts got someone in right away that started taking care of the animals," Fulton said, but added, "We are definitely looking at (animal cruelty and neglect) charges against the manager."
Reached by phone Wednesday, Roberts confirmed there was an issue, but did not elaborate.
"We provided hay. We provided equipment," Roberts said. "We had everything available."
He declined to answer any other questions and said an attorney had advised him not to comment.
Roberts is a retired oral surgeon who served four terms in the Montana Legislature, representing Billings-based House District 26 in 2005, 2009 and 2011. He was also elected in 2003, representing Billings before the state's current district lines were drawn. Most recently he lost a Senate District 26 seat to Margie MacDonald by 19 votes in a recount.
He received the annual "Grid Master" award from the Red Angus Association of America in 2016, in recognition of "excellence in commercial cattle and cattle feeding industry."
Fulton declined to say whether the investigation could result in charges being filed against Roberts, who he said appeared "just as shocked as we were" since the issue was brought to his attention.
"The animals have been taken care of since the day we got involved, and they're continuing to be monitored, even though the suspect (the former manager) is no longer on the property," Fulton said.