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."
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"I think (a full-time inspector) would pay
his wages in horse inspections," McCaffree wrote.
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.
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
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
"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
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
"I've never knowingly left one in the
feedlot. That's just personal," Clark said.
Originally published Sunday, August 10, 2003