Karen Sussman climbs into the bed of her pickup truck near Lantry on May 17, 2007.

A deal that would have stopped the auction of hundreds of wild horses in north-central South Dakota has been accepted by all parties except the leader of the troubled sanctuary where the horses reside, according to an attorney who is participating in the talks.

Dewey County State’s Attorney Steve Aberle said a consortium of concerned organizations has offered to reimburse Dewey and Ziebach counties for the costs of caring for the horses since October, and to assume the care and feeding of the horses while trying to find new homes for them through adoptions.

Aberle, who said the consortium members wish to remain confidential, said county officials and the state Animal Industry Board have agreed to the deal, but the owner of the horses, the nonprofit International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, has not.

Aberle said a meeting was scheduled Thursday with ISPMB President Karen Sussman, but she did not show up and has not responded to the proposal.

Unless Sussman accepts the deal soon, Aberle said, the estimated 550 to 650 horses that are impounded at the ISPMB ranch on the Dewey-Ziebach county line near Lantry could be put up for sale at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Faith Livestock. Wild-horse advocates fear that buyers for foreign slaughter plants will be among the bidders.

Aberle told the Journal in a phone interview Monday that "it would be very unfortunate" if the auction took place. “But it would be one person and one person alone who would prevent that from happening, and that is Karen Sussman, president of the ISPMB,” he added.

Phone messages left Tuesday morning for Sussman and the ISPMB’s professional fundraiser, Howard Paley — who has spoken recently on the organization’s behalf — were not immediately returned.

Sussman lives at the ISPMB ranch. After becoming the society president in the 1990s, she moved the organization from Arizona to South Dakota and changed its focus from advocacy and lobbying to the rescue and ownership of threatened wild horses.

When authorities stepped in to impound the ISPMB’s multiple herds at the ranch and take over the care and feeding of the animals in October, they counted 810 horses on the ranch’s scant and overgrazed 665 acres. The court-ordered impounding, which came with Sussman’s reluctant agreement, followed a finding of neglect by a state-employed veterinarian and allegations from a former ISPMB employee that some horses had died of starvation-related causes.

Since the beginning of the impounding, Sussman has parted with about 200 horses through adoptions or private sales, Aberle said. Authorities limited private adoptions and sales to 270 head because the counties wanted to retain some horses as collateral against the costs of the impounding.

The ISPMB was allowed more than a month to reimburse the counties for those costs, but so far the organization has paid only $52,000 toward a growing total of about $100,000, mostly for hay purchases. (Some of the costs have been offset by $24,000 in donations and grants to the counties.)

The ISPMB was also given the opportunity to get some horses back by producing evidence of enough funding or feed for 18 months of operations. The continuing lack of such evidence led authorities to schedule the auction. The proceeds would go first to the counties to cover their costs, and then to the ISPMB.

The October impounding order put the horses under the care of county officials but left legal ownership and responsibility for adoption efforts with the ISPMB. Some critics have assailed county and state authorities for not seizing ownership of the horses and taking control of the adoptions, but Aberle has avoided such an action because he is concerned that it could be considered an illegal seizure of property. 

There are provisions in state laws and administrative rules, though, that allow for a transfer of ownership in cases involving impounded animals. The relevant administrative rule of the state Animal Industry Board says the board may seek a court order to transfer ownership of the impounded animals to a suitable caretaker or facility.

Aberle said options to avert the auction will continue to be considered, but the auction remained scheduled as of Tuesday evening.

One of the groups that have been publicly active in seeking better homes for the horses is The Humane Society of the United States.

Earlier this month, the South Dakota office of the HSUS issued a long written statement explaining that the organization previously provided assistance to the ISPMB but ended that assistance “when ISPMB leaders failed to follow our recommendations and take action necessary to manage population growth.”

Since the impounding, the HSUS statement said, the organization has been trying to help facilitate adoptions of ISPMB horses in cooperation with Fleet of Angels, a nonprofit network of trailer owners who provide transportation and assistance for at-risk horses in the United States and Canada.

Like Aberle, the HSUS pinned the blame for the impending auction on Sussman.

“The HSUS is strongly opposed to the slaughter of horses for human consumption,” the organization’s statement said, “and we are deeply saddened that Ms. Sussman’s choices have put the horses at risk of being purchased at auction by kill buyers.”

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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