Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series examining the history of a troubled South Dakota wild horse sanctuary. The articles are based on public records, interviews and the frequent writings of the sanctuary director herself. Part III runs Tuesday.
In 2001, Karen Sussman appeared to be deeply under the spell of her wild horses and her image as their savior.
Her enthusiasm apparently rubbed off on members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Its leaders agreed to take in a herd that Sussman, the president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB), had rescued from the Virginia Range in Nevada.
Plans were hatched to attract horse-loving tourists to the reservation, to give foals to Native American children, and to incorporate horses into substance-abuse therapy programs.
“Songs were sung that had not been sung in over one hundred years,” the ISPMB website said. “Many elders believed that the return of the horses signified the fulfillment of prophecies that the buffalo and the horses would once again return to the people.”
But prophecies soon yielded to a stark reality. The tribal programming never took off, and tourists did not flock to see the wild horses. Roads covering the 150 miles from Rapid City into the remote heart of the reservation remained dominated by more deer and antelope than vehicles.
The tribe's herd of wild horses, which had numbered about 80 in 2001, multiplied to 300 by 2007. Tribal leaders decided to return their land to leased cattle grazing and send the horses back to Sussman, and send her organization into a potential death spiral.
Sussman recognized that bringing the horses onto her privately owned ranch near Lantry on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation would strain her land's grazing capacity. The ranch, which Sussman bought in 2003 after losing a pasture lease on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, was already home to other rescued horses numbering perhaps 200 or more.
Sussman, who declined requests to comment for this series, tried to find adoptive homes for the 300 horses that were being jettisoned by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, but that effort either failed or was not sufficiently pursued, and she ended up bringing the horses back to her own ranch.
Suddenly, all the horses that Sussman had rescued on behalf of the ISPMB since 1999 and all of their offspring were crowded around her. The horses, numbering perhaps 500 in all, had previously been spread across 22,000 acres of Cheyenne River Sioux tribal land, about 5,000 acres on the Pine Ridge Reservation and 665 acres of Sussman’s own land.
But after the crumbling of the arrangements on both reservations, all the horses were on Sussman’s 665 acres.
By this past summer, when the horses numbered 810, Sussman was exceeding sustainable grazing ratios by absurd proportions. According to data from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, the ISPMB horses would need at least 16,000 acres of land in the Lantry area to have sufficient grass — about 24 times the actual size of the ISPMB ranch.
Breeding beyond control
Still, Sussman continued to allow the horses to reproduce. For at least several years, she made some use of the fertility control drug known as porcine zona pellucida (PZP), but that effort was not sustained and Sussman apparently exerted little to no other control over breeding.
According to articles Sussman wrote on the ISPMB website and in ISPMB newsletters, she was determined to prove that wild horses do not multiply as quickly as government land managers claim. She believed that under wild conditions, mustangs and burros would separate into bands dominated by older stallions. The older stallions would prevent the younger stallions from mating with mares, Sussman claimed, which would keep numbers in check naturally.
Under that line of thinking, the roundups that government land managers conduct to cull excess horses from public ranges only disrupt the natural social structure and allow more younger stallions to breed mares, contributing to the very population growth that government land managers want to control.
In ISPMB materials, Sussman often referenced reams of supporting data she compiled while observing the breeding of her own horses. She hoped to use the data to convince government land managers, such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, to conduct fewer wild-horse roundups on public lands.
But the cramped conditions at Sussman's ranch were far from the wild and free conditions that served as the basis of her theories, and any credibility that might have been attached to her data was negated when she was overwhelmed by the breeding of her own horses.
Even one of Sussman's sympathetic colleagues, Susan Watt, the executive director of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, now recognizes that Sussman's breeding philosophy was part of her undoing. Watt noted that the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, which is near Hot Springs, castrates studs and takes other steps to maintain a zero-growth rate in its own herd, even though it has about 200 fewer horses and 10,000 more acres than the ISPMB.
Financial storm erupts
As growing numbers of horses mowed down Sussman's pastures each spring, she became increasingly reliant on purchases of hay to replace her vanishing grass during the summer, fall and winter seasons.
A tipping point arrived in 2009, the first year that the ISPMB’s feed costs exceeded its revenue, according to its annual reports to the IRS. That year, the ISPMB reported raising about $130,000 in donations and grants while spending $280,731 on feed alone and racking up loads of additional bills.
Sussman acknowledged in a 2010 ISPMB newsletter that times were tough.
“To make sure we survived during the worst economical year, I personally guaranteed the acquisition of hay for last winter by putting my ranch up as collateral for payment," she wrote. "I have until November 1, 2011 to make a final payment of $250,000 to retain my ranch.”
Public records indicate that Sussman ended up selling her ranch for $300,000 in 2013 to ISPMB supporter John Christopher Fine, a book author and freelance journalist from New York. She then apparently loaned most of the proceeds to the ISPMB to pay off hay suppliers and release liens that were placed on the ranch.
More trouble surfaced in 2015 when a hay supplier sued the ISPMB for unpaid bills, and by March of 2016 three more hay suppliers had filed lawsuits. Their cumulative claims against the ISPMB totaled nearly $200,000, and court records show only one of the cases has been fully settled.
Through it all, Sussman and the ISPMB not only continued to raise money, but raised more than ever.
After the organization’s near financial collapse in 2009, it hired a direct-mail fundraiser, Fund Raising Strategies Inc., of McLean, Va. The company netted $183,941 for the ISPMB in 2010 and $228,185 in 2011.
Many other means of raising money were exploited. On the ISPMB's website, in its newsletters and in her emails to supporters, Sussman used droughts, floods, hard winters and spikes in hay prices as rallying cries to motivate donations. She pleaded for generosity to keep the horse herds intact and support her reproductive studies.
Supporters from around the country sponsored individual horses for $150, an acre of land for $250, an orphan foal for $500, a band of horses for $1,000 or an entire herd for $5,000. A capital campaign was launched with the hope — which was never fulfilled — of buying a bigger ranch. Books and photographic prints were donated to the ISPMB to be sold. Grants were obtained from sources including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
It all added up to an impressive and growing stream of income. From 2002 to 2014, the years for which the ISPMB’s IRS records are publicly available, the organization raised more than $4 million in donations and grants. The last few years of that stretch were the most successful in terms of fundraising, with reported revenue of $712,915 in 2012, $700,120 in 2013 and $633,870 in 2014.
Yet, because of the lack of sustainability of the horse numbers compared with the land acreage, the high income over the past few years was barely enough to cover feed costs that soared to $10,000 per week. The ISPMB continued to fall behind, and by the end of 2014, it reported outstanding debts of more than $1 million.
The foundering finances contributed to rapidly deteriorating conditions on the ranch and among the animals that would soon be exposed by a concerned tipster and a disgruntled ranch employee.