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From salvation to starvation: How a wild horse crusader's dream went bad

From the From Salvation to Starvation: A three-part Journal special report series
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Editor's note: The following is the first segment in a three-part series documenting the rise and fall of a West River horse sanctuary. The articles are based on public records, interviews and the frequent writings of the sanctuary director herself. Part II is Monday; Part III runs Tuesday.

When Karen Sussman orchestrated the transfer of 70 wild horses from the white sands of New Mexico to the green plains of South Dakota, she was immensely gratified.

“These horses are going to heaven,” she told a reporter at the time, “and I mean heaven.”

It was 1999, and Sussman, then 52, was embarking on a new mission for herself and the nonprofit organization she led, the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB). She was changing the organization's focus from advocacy and lobbying to the daily operation of a wild-horse sanctuary.

Sussman moved to South Dakota with the White Sands herd, and in the coming years she bought a ranch of her own and obtained dozens more horses. She merged her identity so thoroughly with the organization that the two became all but indistinguishable, and her reputation blossomed into that of a crusading savior. National reporters routinely sought her opinion on wild-horse issues, and she was inducted into the Nevada-based Wild Horse and Burro Expo Hall of Fame.

Then, this year, everything unraveled.

In July, the diminutive Sussman, by now a 69-year-old grandmother, was charged with felony grand theft for bouncing a $9,394 check to a hay supplier (the charge was dropped in October, after she made restitution to the victim).

In September, one of Sussman’s employees went public with disturbing images and videos of horses allegedly starving to death or suffering major physical injuries at the ISPMB ranch near Lantry, S.D.

And in October, a judge ordered two county sheriffs to seize control of the ISPMB horses. The sheriffs were stunned to count 810 head — not 650 as Sussman had claimed — packed onto a scant 665 acres, or about one square mile.

Instead of the horse heaven Sussman promised 17 years earlier, she was operating a glorified feedlot where horses stood on trampled dirt and nosed through their own manure as they waited for their next tractor-load of hay.

Sussman now has a chance to get some of the horses back, if she can assemble proof of an 18-month supply of feed or funding by Friday. If she fails, authorities will put the horses up for adoption until Dec. 1. Any horses not adopted by then could be sold to foreign processing plants, possibly for slaughter and human consumption.

From the outside, it seems like a sudden and stunning fall for a woman previously viewed as a national leader in the protection of wild horses.

In reality, her journey from saving horses to starving them was a predictable tale fraught with unrealistic expectations, bad decisions, stubbornness and denial, including a purposefully lax approach to breeding that was couched as reproductive science.

Along the way, Sussman has spent more than $4 million of other people's money and unwittingly made herself into a cautionary tale for wild-horse sanctuaries and fodder for those who argue for the slaughter of wild horses.

Although Sussman has declined repeated interview requests and issued only a written statement, the Journal has pieced together the story of Sussman's history from interviews, court documents, archived news stories and Sussman's own voluminous writings on the ISPMB website.

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ISPMB ranch map

'Wild Horse Annie' devotee

Sussman was raised in Pennsylvania, where she rode horses as a girl during the 1950s and ’60s. She grew up to become a nurse and piano teacher, got married, had two daughters, settled in Arizona and divorced in 1992 at age 45. By then, she had rekindled her childhood love of horses.

“When I adopted my first wild horse in 1981, she changed my course in life,” Sussman later wrote.

She began volunteering in Arizona for the ISPMB and modeled her efforts after the organization’s late founding president, Velma “Wild Horse Annie” Johnston.

Johnston inspired the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, the federal legislation that outlawed brutal wild-horse roundups and required the government to protect wild horses on designated public ranges in the West.

Ever since Sussman became the president of the ISPMB in 1989, she has viewed herself as the keeper of Johnston’s legacy.

“Her home is packed with the late Wild Horse Annie’s personal items,” wrote a reporter who visited Sussman for a 2006 story in Vanity Fair, “making it a kind of unofficial museum — she even has Annie’s saddle resting on a sawhorse.”

Under the terms of the still-enforced 1971 law, excess wild horses are culled from the public ranges and made available for adoption, or sold to buyers who agree not to have them slaughtered, or sent to private pastures where the government pays for their care. Horses are killed only under limited circumstances, such as when they are old, sick or lame.

But the law does not apply to all wild horses. It affects only those on land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Wild horses on land managed by other federal or state agencies are not necessarily protected.

When wild horses that lack federal protection multiply to unsustainable numbers or draw the ire of neighboring landowners, private sanctuaries often come to the rescue of the horses. That is how Sussman moved the ISPMB into horse ownership.

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Horses at the International Society for Protection of Mustangs and Burros ranch near Lantry come to a fence in early October.

Up from the desert

Soon after she rose to the presidency of the ISPMB, Sussman focused her attention on a herd that had no federal legal protection: The hundreds of horses that roamed the U.S. Army’s 3,000-square-mile White Sands Missile Range in the southern New Mexico desert.

Before the federal government turned the area into a military installation, ranchers allowed their horses to roam across the unfenced range in search of food and water until they were needed for ranch work. As the government snatched up land for the missile range in the 1940s and forced out the few local residents, some scattered horses were left behind.

The horses turned feral, multiplied and eventually overwhelmed the desert area’s scant natural resources. A public controversy arose in 1994 after at least 122 horses died, reportedly of dehydration or related causes.

The Army was not bound by the restrictions of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act and could have killed the surviving horses or sent them to slaughter. It opted instead to work with concerned people and groups — including the ISPMB — to reduce the horse numbers on the range to 300, which was considered to be the number the range could support.

Don Höglund, a South Dakota-born veterinarian, was hired to lead the effort. By 1996, his team had removed an estimated 2,000 horses from the range. The horses were sent to a sanctuary and then to adoptive homes, in numbers no greater than four per location.

The four-horse limit was imposed to prevent the kind of situation that would eventually overwhelm Sussman and her ISPMB ranch years later in South Dakota.

“If you have more than eight or 10 of those animals at a rescue or sanctuary, and they’re dependent upon non-taxpayer benefactors for help with their care or feed,” Höglund, now of North Carolina, said in a recent Journal interview. “Any more than eight or 10 always seems to get people in trouble.”

By 1999, Army officials decided to remove the remaining 300 horses. The animals' hooves were damaging the banks of waterholes inhabited by White Sands pupfish, a species found only in southern New Mexico.

Sussman received permission to take 70 of the horses to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, where she intended to keep them together as a breeding herd. Patrick Morrow, a wildlife biologist on the New Mexico missile range, said the ISPMB was granted an exception to the four-horse limit because Sussman was a trusted partner in the removal effort and seemed to have a solid plan to care for the animals.

Sussman thought the White Sands horses had rare genes that needed protection. Neither Morrow, the wildlife biologist, nor Höglund, the veterinarian, shared that belief.

“They were ranch horses turned loose by ranchers,” Höglund said.

Cast out of horse heaven

Sussman took the horses to the sprawling ranch of Alan and Asta Amiotte, near Interior, S.D., about 70 miles southeast of Rapid City.

The ISPMB had a lease on several thousand acres of the Amiottes’ land — an oasis of grass bordering the Badlands — and the Amiottes allowed Sussman to move into a trailer house on their property.

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Soon, Sussman arranged for 31 more wild horses to be hauled to the Amiotte ranch, this time from the Gila Bend area of Arizona. The horses had wandered from a federally managed area onto private land and were removed following complaints by farmers and ranchers, according to the ISPMB.

Additionally, Sussman began buying individual horses to save them from slaughter. She built up a ragtag collection of about 25 head rescued from sale barns and other places, according to Asta Amiotte.

All of the horses came to live on the Amiottes’ land, where Sussman had big plans. She envisioned a National Wild Horse and Burro Heritage Center to educate the public about wild horses and their place in Native American culture.

Her enthusiasm seemed unaffected by being on Pine Ridge, a place that is off the beaten path even by South Dakota standards and consistently ranks as one of the most economically depressed places in the United States. She grew emotional as she watched the horses roam the Amiotte ranch.

“It makes you want to cry, because you know they are free,” she was quoted as saying in an Indian Country Today story in 2000.

The Amiottes felt like crying, too, but for a different reason. According to Asta Amiotte, Sussman fell so far behind on lease payments that within a few years, the ISPMB owed the Amiottes about $14,000.

Asta, a no-nonsense ranch woman, watched in aggravated wonder as Sussman exercised no apparent control over the breeding of the horses. It was clear to Asta that the animals would eventually multiply to unsustainable numbers.

“She wouldn’t listen,” Amiotte said in a recent interview. “Anybody with any common sense knows that if you run cattle or you have prairie dogs or coyotes or lions or whatever it is, you have to manage them.”

With the Amiotte partnership broken beyond repair, public records show that Sussman used about $255,000 in 2003 to acquire a 665-acre, privately owned ranch near the unincorporated community of Lantry on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, in north-central South Dakota about 150 miles northeast of the Amiotte ranch. Sussman moved into a doublewide trailer on her new ranch, which would serve double duty as her home and the headquarters of the ISPMB.

In later years, Sussman sometimes received pasture-rent payments from the ISPMB for allowing the organization's horses to graze her land. The annual amounts ranged from $12,000 to $24,000. The rent was paid in addition to Sussman's annual compensation, which ranged from zero some years to as much as $41,000 in other years.

When Sussman left the Amiotte ranch, the ISPMB owned perhaps 125 to 150 horses, Asta recalled. Sussman moved the Gila herd and her assortment of rescue horses to her new ranch first, but when she tried to gather the White Sands horses, the Amiottes refused to relinquish them until Sussman settled the ISPMB's debt. She scraped the money together, collected the horses and left Pine Ridge behind.

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Horses at the International Society for Protection of Mustangs and Burros ranch near Lantry, S.D., stand in a field in early October. Hundreds of horses impounded at the ranch since October will be offered for sale Dec. 20.

Another try farther north

Undaunted by the crumbling of her dream on Pine Ridge, Sussman forged a similar partnership in 2001 with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

She had rescued yet another herd, this time about 80 wild horses from the Virginia Range mountains in western Nevada, near the former home of her idol Wild Horse Annie. The horses that roamed the Virginia Range fell under state rather than federal jurisdiction and were therefore not protected under the 1971 federal wild horse law.

According to the ISPMB’s website, the organization “answered a call to save 82 of the wild horses from starvation” and arranged for them to inhabit 22,000 acres of tribal land on the Cheyenne River reservation. The tribe hoped to develop a tourism park showcasing the horses, while giving foals to Native American children and incorporating horses into a drug-abuse therapy program. In an echo of Sussman's Pine Ridge experience, nobody seemed fazed by the unlikelihood of tourists traveling to the remote reservation.

Sussman, meanwhile, seized yet another opportunity to take in still more horses, this time about 80 of them from the Sheldon National Wildlife Range in northern Nevada, another area where wild horses were not protected by federal law. Sussman dubbed those horses the Catnip Herd for the Catnip Mountains they inhabited, and brought them to live on her small ranch.

The Catnip Herd was Sussman’s last major horse rescue, and it capped a frenetic period for her and the ISPMB. From 1999 to 2004, she obtained four distinct herds and an assortment of other horses numbering perhaps 265 in total, while moving herself and the ISPMB’s headquarters from Arizona to Pine Ridge, then to the Cheyenne River reservation.

Sussman’s reputation grew with every rescue. Life magazine photographed and profiled the White Sands transfer in 1999. National Geographic published a photo of the Virginia Range herd in 2004. Vanity Fair featured Sussman in an article about the plight of wild horses in 2006, the same year she was inducted into the Mustang Hall of Fame. Celebrities, including “Dances with Wolves” author Michael Blake and “Heart to Heart” television actress Stefanie Powers, joined the ISPMB’s advisory groups.

It was an exhilarating run for Sussman, but she and the ISPMB were about to suffer a debilitating setback.

Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal.