More Than 30 Wild Horses Die of Starvation on South Dakota Ranch, Employee Says

A former employee of a South Dakota ranch claims at least 30 wild horses have died from starvation and other causes.

The Rapid City Journal reports that the Dewey County Sheriff Les Mayer is investigating the situation. Former International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros employee Colleen Burns estimates over 30 horses have died since June.

“I find it hard to breathe when I think back on what’s happened here.”

Burns told the newspaper she was fired Thursday from the ranch located in Dewey and Ziebach counties, about 110 miles northeast of Rapid City, after going public with her allegations about conditions at the north-central South Dakota ranch. She posted 16 pages of written evidence and photographs on a website and linked it to her Facebook page.

Karen Sussman, president and longtime leader of the society, discounted Burns’ claim, saying she is a “disgruntled employee” and insinuated that any problems with the horses are Burns’ fault.

“I just fired her, so I’m sure that she’s a disgruntled employee. She was in charge of managing the horses.”

Burns, who began working at the society in April 2015, was the senior project manager. The society cares for hundreds of wild horses on a rural Lantry ranch within the boundaries of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in north-central South Dakota.

According to Burns, there are about 650 wild horses on the property. Most of them are rescues from various places thoughout the West.

Burns claims insufficient grass and financial troubles led to the horses’ deaths because they could not afford to buy enough hay to feed the wild horses, she noted in her statement.

“The organization has failed to generate the income needed to adequately feed and maintain these numbers. In 2006, it is noted on the organization’s website that there was concern for the organization’s ability to feed the horses.”

The sheriff told the newspaper he had ordered Sussman to feed the horses each day or risk citation or arrest.

Burns said the wild horses lived in four different pastures. When the grass began to dry up in June coupled with no hay to feed the starving horses, they began to drop one by one. The dire situation was compounded by the births of dozens of foals born earlier this year.

Despite pleas to Sussman to do something, little was done, according to Burns, and their relationship soured. Burns turned to the board. Again, nothing was done.

“My efforts to effect positive change for the ISPMB wild horses have been unsuccessful. When horses began to die and my concerns for their well being dismissed out of hand by both the ISPMB president and board of directors, I began documenting their deaths.”

Throughout, the wild horses did not receive veterinary care until Burns, fed up with the situation, contacted the South Dakota state veterinarian, who visited the ranch earlier in early September, along with the sheriff.

Mayer said his office has made daily visits to the ranch to confirm that Sussman is complying with the order.

Prosecutors in both Dewey and Ziebach counties are in possession of documentation collected by Mayer. Dewey County State’s Attorney Steven Aberle told The Journal he was reviewing the material but would not comment on what he called an “ongoing potentially criminal investigation.”

In another case, Sussman has been charged with felony grand theft charge in nearby Perkins County after she allegedly wrote a bad check for $9,394 for hay. If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

In a Facebook post, Burns said that losing her job over bringing attention to the plight of the wild horses in South Dakota was “worth it.”

[Featured Image by Ann Heisenfelt/AP Images]