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Horses trot through one of the pastures at the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros ranch near Lantry. 

LANTRY | The fate of endangered wild horses in north-central South Dakota has been resolved with a settlement allowing an embattled nonprofit organization to keep 20 horses with the 520 others transferred to a new owner and put up for adoption.

The settlement agreement forestalled a two-day hearing last week on a motion by state and local authorities to seize all the horses from the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros.

The horses had been impounded at the society’s small and overgrazed ranch near Lantry since October, where they were being cared for by local authorities after a state-employed veterinarian determined the horses had been neglected.

The settlement prohibits the society from allowing its 20-horse herd to grow beyond 40 horses during the next five years and says the horses will be seized if that happens. Among other conditions, the settlement requires the society to undergo, for the next 18 months, quarterly veterinary inspections and other inspections as scheduled by the sheriffs of Dewey and Ziebach counties (the county line is straddled by the society's ranch), and to pay the counties a total of $10,000. 

The 520 horses taken from the society's ownership will be transferred to the ownership of Fleet of Angels, a Colorado-based nonprofit that provides crisis management and transportation for horse-related emergencies in the United States and Canada.

Fleet of Angels and another nonprofit, Return to Freedom, of California, said in a joint release they would work to find suitable placements for the horses at approved homes, sanctuaries and rescue facilities.

“The settlement sets the stage for one of the largest known equine rescue and adoption efforts in U.S. history,” the release said.

The agreement allows the rescue organizations to keep the horses at the society’s ranch for up to 60 days while conducting the adoption campaign. The release from the rescue groups also said they may relocate their 520 horses “to a more suitable adoption hub.”

When the horses were impounded in October, they numbered 810. Some were thin and others had various physical ailments, and a former society employee alleged that some horses had died of starvation-related causes while the cash-strapped society struggled to acquire hay.

Fleet of Angels stepped in to arrange adoptions of 270 of the horses in the past few months, leaving 540 whose fates were determined by the settlement agreement.

Fleet of Angels and Return to Freedom reported that the current health of the horses varies from good to underweight, and some suffer from blindness or vision impairment.

The rescue groups said they face feed costs of $40,000 per month for the 520 horses, and additional costs are anticipated for veterinary care, hoof care and transportation.

Dewey and Ziebach counties predict their impounding-related costs from the past few months will reach $200,000 when all the bills are tallied, but Dewey County State’s Attorney Steven Aberle said the counties will be reimbursed for most or all of those expenses.

Through Dec. 29, the counties had spent $156,735.53 but had been reimbursed $52,000 by the society, $11,714.14 by donations from the public and $15,000 by a grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, leaving $78,021.39 yet to be reimbursed. Aberle said Fleet of Angels agreed to pay that amount.

The counties are still compiling costs incurred since Dec. 29. Aberle said the $10,000 paid by the society as part of the settlement will be applied to those bills, and Fleet of Angels has agreed to pay the rest.

Fleet of Angels reported that the Humane Society of the United States, the Griffin-Sofel Equine Rescue Foundation and “another national equine welfare organization,” which was not identified in the release, contributed money to reimburse the counties.

“Without the efforts of the many concerned people who are helping with this mission in a variety of ways, a massive emergency rescue like this could never be possible,” Elaine Nash, executive director of Fleet of Angels, said in the release.

The International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros also issued a release, summarizing some provisions of the settlement. One provision requires that “none of the parties to this action will make disparaging remarks, comments or statements about another party.”

Aberle, the Dewey County state’s attorney, said he is “very pleased” with the settlement and called it positive for everyone involved – the rescue groups, which saved the horses from being auctioned and potentially sold to foreign slaughter plants; the society, which gets to keep some horses; and the counties, which will recoup their costs.

The society and its president, Karen Sussman, who lives at the ranch, still face other difficulties including some pending lawsuits from hay suppliers.

In one of those suits, a judge ordered $90,004.95 to be released from a society bank account Jan. 5 after the Spearfish-based plaintiff, who is owed money for hay deliveries, had legally garnished the account.

In another suit, a court clerk issued issued a document known as an “execution” Jan. 4, directing the sheriff of Dewey County to collect $30,322.96 that the society still owes to a Lantry hay supplier after the supplier had won a judgment against the society in May.

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills." Receiving encrypted news tips through Peerio with the user name seth_tupper.