Overcrowding, negligence plague Shelby horse feedlot
Sunday, August 10, 2003
Great Falls Tribune, Great Falls, Montana

Tribune Staff Writer


Hundreds of horses bound for the slaughterhouse stand idly in the summer heat at the Bar S feedlot east of Shelby off Highway 2.

SHELBY -- Seven to 8 inches of cold rain had poured down on the Bar S horse feedlot east of town a week and a half before state livestock investigators Larry Elings and Ernie McCaffree arrived on the scene on June 20, 2002.

The investigators were acting on a tip. Trudging along the muddy paths of the feedlot, they videotaped the grim evidence they were warned they would find: dead horses, 35 to 40 of them rotting in pens after drowning or suffocating in up to 3 feet of soggy manure.

Four horses still were breathing but in such poor shape they needed to be euthanized, Elings later wrote in a report. At the back of the property he and McCaffree found the carcasses of 20 to 25 dead horses stacked in an open pit.

"Conditions were bad," Elings wrote.

The Bar S goes to trial this fall on charges of cruelty to animals in connection with that incident. But its problems didn't begin there.

State records indicate a pattern of negligent conditions at the feedlot tucked off Benjamin Road, behind the railroad tracks, just out of sight to motorists on Highway 2.

Americans as a rule don't eat horse meat and might never pause to ponder the purpose of a horse feedlot. But for thousands of horses each year, the Bar S is a date with death -- a way station where old, lame, neglected or merely unwanted equines are fattened up for a few weeks or months and then trucked across the Canadian border to a slaughterhouse in Fort Macleod, Alberta.

The feedlot and the slaughterhouse both are owned by Bouvry Exports Calgary.

The Tribune sued the Department of Livestock earlier this year to obtain public inspection records about the Bar S. They chronicle a laundry list of concerns about the feedlot:

The Bar S was overcrowded. At times, as many as 2,200 horses were squeezed into exposed pens on three dusty acres.

  • The feedlot employed only a couple of workers to shovel manure out of the pens and treat sick and dying horses. Horses too unhealthy to be kept alive were often left standing.
  • Instead of sorting horses by gender, the Bar S corralled mares and studs together, prompting frequent fights and resulting in numerous injuries.
  • Pregnant horses were forced to give birth in pens where they were unprotected from bigger horses. Newborn colts and foals often were trampled to death.
  • The Bar S failed repeatedly to brand incoming horses as a way of signifying that they had not been tested for Equine Infectious Anemia, a contagious and incurable disease, and needed to be kept in a quarantine facility.
  • Environmental problems also surfaced. Two months before the storm that killed so many horses, the state Department of Environmental Quality instructed the Bar S to install a system to redirect and contain stormwater runoff. Fifteen months later the feedlot has yet to do so and is now under a compliance schedule, according to Kari Smith, water quality specialist.

    For at least six years, McCaffree raised red flags about the Bar S.

    "This place is not a wreck waiting to happen, it is a wreck happening," he protested of the Bar S in a June 6, 1997, memo to Department of Livestock Executive Officer Marc Bridges. "What goes on around this place after hours would probably scare a person to death."

    Hauling manure

    The Bar S also troubles Dave Pauli, head of the Humane Society's Northern Rockies regional office.

    On June 27, 2002, a week after Elings and McCaffree toured the Bar S, Pauli visited the feedlot along with Linda Hughes, director of the Cascade County Humane Society. They watched as a seven-member crew used front-end loaders and a backhoe to haul away thousands of pounds of manure.

    In spite of the improvements, Pauli came away with a raft of concerns.

    "I believe this Bar S feedlot is a substandard animal handling operation," he wrote Clyde Huseby, the livestock enforcement program. "I would suggest that if either the community of Shelby or the general horse-sale-supplying public knew of the risks and conditions at Bar S that the operation would simply not be tolerated in its present condition."

    Even Hardee Clark, the Shelby veterinarian who issues health certificates for Bar S horses about to be shipped to Canada, voiced concerns about the feedlot's husbandry practices. In addition to the existing list of issues, he believes some horses get overlooked when shipments are selected and consequently may languish in the feedlot for a year or more.

    Clark added, though, that if the Bar S didn't exist, "we'd have a lot more problems."

    Lacking authority

    Despite problems documented by state investigators, the Bar S is privately owned and therefore exempt from the regulations that govern commercial feedlots, livestock department head Bridges said. He said his department's main responsibility is to inspect horses when they first enter the feedlot and once again when they leave.

    "We go up there and say we're shutting your feedlot down for sanitation requirements and (feedlot owner) Claude Bouvry would say, 'Under what legal authority do you have?' Well, we don't have any," Bridges said.

    That said, concerns raised by McCaffree "did not go unnoticed," Bridges said. He said state veterinarian Arnold Gertonson had numerous conversations with Bouvry about conditions at the feedlot.

    "Some of it is flat mismanagement," Bridges said. "You can tell somebody they have a management problem and they better get it straightened out or it can escalate into something else," and Gertonson did so.

    Gertonson left his job in June, however, and moved to Colorado, where he is now employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. He did not return phone messages requesting comment.

    'Animals nobody wants'

    Benny Kropius, an agent for the Bouvry family who oversees the feedlot from Fort Macleod, said he, too, was dismayed at the number of dead horses left to decompose after the June 2002 storm. But the weather would have killed some of the horses regardless of the conditions at the Bar S, he said.

    "How about the cattle feedlots?" Kropius wondered aloud in an interview, holding his cowboy hat in his hand. "How many died there?"

    The storm did kill hundreds of livestock on farms and ranches along the Hi-Line.

    Kropius blamed former manager Howie Solberg for other less-than-adequate conditions at the feedlot. Solberg left the feedlot shortly after the animal cruelty charges were filed. He no longer lives in Shelby and couldn't be reached for comment.

    "We get a lot of the animals nobody wants. They're always more susceptible," Kropius said. "We're not trying to abuse anything or do anything wrong."

    In a June 23, 2002, memo to Huseby, McCaffree complained of "gross negligence of yard maintenance and sanitary conditions" at the Bar S. Kropius said he's convinced the Bar S attracts scrutiny solely because it deals in horses instead of cattle.

    "It doesn't matter if you had the horses each individually in a stall with blankets, people would complain because they're going to slaughter," he said.

    40 cents a pound

    The Bar S started out as a feedlot for cattle, but switched to horses two decades ago. In a typical week as many as 300 horses are trucked the 120 miles from Shelby to Fort Macleod.

    The market's down, so Bar S currently pays roughly 40 cents a pound for horses, Kropius said. Horse meat is flown overseas and sold in butcher shops and restaurants. Horse parts also are used to make baseballs, shoes, pet food, fertilizer and feed for zoo animals.

    Kropius defended the Bar S as a legitimate business that contributes to the local economy: It spent $263,000 buying horses and supplies in Montana last year, he said.

    He agreed that it doesn't make good business sense to mistreat the horses. But he questioned the notion that the Bar S ought to euthanize horses deemed too sick to survive feedlot conditions.

    In a 1998 letter, Huseby advised Kropius that "if the health condition of a horse has deteriorated to the point that it will not pass inspection at the border, you may find it in your companies' best interests to put that horse down, rather than having the public view your business as causing cruelty to animals."

    Overgrown hooves

    As an example, Kropius said some horses' hooves grow too long from eating the feedlot's feed. The horses have to walk slowly as a result, he said, but he doesn't see a need to put them down because of their condition.

    "It's like big fat people," Kropius said. "Do you shoot them because they have to walk behind everybody else?"

    For livestock officials, the feedlot's lax branding practices has been the biggest headache.

    Because the feedlot horses are bound for slaughter, the state doesn't require them to be tested for the contagious Equine Infectious Anemia. In return, horses taken to the Bar S are supposed to be branded with a "-- S" within 48 hours of their arrival to denote that their EIA status is unknown.

    Yet three times in the last six years livestock investigators dropped by the feedlot to find horses missing the Bar S brand.

    Where's the brand?

    In March 2000, two weeks after the state and the Bar S signed a memorandum of understanding outlining the branding requirement, Kropius diverted a shipment of 34 untested Idaho horses destined for the Bar S to a feedlot in Conrad without notifying the state. Doing so violated not only the contract but state law.

    A veterinarian later tested the horses for EIA. They turned up negative. The state cited Kropius, who posted a $120 bond.

    Kropius said the horses were taken to Conrad overnight because the Bar S was full. He said McCaffree sometimes exaggerates the magnitude of the problem. Feedlot employees tend to administer the Bar S brand lightly -- Japanese buyers complain when brands leave marks on the hides -- but it's there, Kropius said.

    "He always was a little picky on us," he said of McCaffree.

    McCaffree recommended the department beef up oversight of the feedlot and install a full-time inspector who could oversee not just branding and general compliance but the comings and goings of horses from out of state and keep track of stolen horse reports.

    "I think (a full-time inspector) would pay his wages in horse inspections," McCaffree wrote.

    Part-time inspections

    The department can't afford to hire a full-time inspector for the Bar S, Bridges said. A department investigator may visit the Bar S once every month or two, but the department relies mostly on Mike Hayes, a business owner in Valier who works part time inspecting the horses. As payment, Hayes gets to keep the inspection fees charged to the Bar S: $6 a head for the first 10 horses and $3 a head after that.

    Hayes declined to speak to the Tribune about the Bar S. McCaffree, who's based in Kalispell, referred questions to the Helena office. Elings did not return phone calls.

    Even though dozens of horses died in the 2002 storm, Toole County Attorney Merle Raph filed just five animal cruelty charges against the feedlot. He wasn't certain conditions at the feedlot could be blamed for all of the deaths, he said.

    Solberg wasn't charged.

    At the time the charges were filed, Montana's animal cruelty law set forth a maximum of six months in jail and a $500 fine for each guilty count. Because the Bar S is a corporation, however, no one will go to jail if a guilty verdict is handed down, Raph said. He said the feedlot would likely be fined $500 or so.

    Improvements made

    To some extent, the charges served as a wake-up call. In the 14 months since they were filed, the Bar S reduced the number of animals at the feedlot to a maximum of 1,500, Kropius said.

    Veterinarian Clark said the Bar S now employs three or four workers to shovel out manure and give better medical care to ailing horses. Kropius said the feedlot always had three workers, but that the new crew works harder than the old one.

    Shelby resident Don Donahue now manages the operation.

    "They're just doing a better job of keeping things in repair," Clark said.

    It was Clark, incidentally, who blew the whistle on the Bar S after the torrential rainstorm. He said he didn't realize the feedlot would face animal cruelty charges as a result.

    "They just needed to know that somebody was watching," Clark said.

    He said the problem really begins at livestock auctions, where blind and seriously ill horses that should have been turned away are allowed in the sale ring.

    Once they arrive at the Bar S, "either we put 'em down or send 'em up and get 'em destroyed," Clark said. "I send horses up north that will be put down in 72 hours."

    He's sold a few horses of his own to the Bar S, he said, but only when a truck is ready and waiting to head for the border.

    "I've never knowingly left one in the feedlot. That's just personal," Clark said.

    Originally published Sunday, August 10, 2003