Prosecutors in Burleigh and Morton counties called law enforcement, veterinarians and volunteers to testify about the condition of more than 100 horses and donkeys seized from William Kiefer in late January.

Burleigh County Assistant State’s Attorney Jeff Ubben and Morton County Assistant State’s Attorney Jackson Lofgren asked South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick to order that the counties be allowed to put Kiefer’s animals up for adoption following a more than 2½-hour hearing Thursday morning at the Burleigh County Courthouse. Romanick has 10 days to issue an opinion.

Officials in Morton County seized 119 horses after finding 96 dead on Kiefer’s property north of New Salem in late January, and Burleigh County officials seized 38 horses after finding three dead on property in that county. Three horses have died in Morton County since that time.

Kiefer has not been charged criminally in the cases. Lofgren and Ubben said the first concern of law enforcement and prosecutors has been the safety of the animals. Ubben said a decision on criminal charges will be made “shortly.”

The counties on Wednesday petitioned the court to place the animals permanently in the custody of the two sheriff’s departments. Lofgren said Kiefer had indicated earlier he was willing to sign over his interests in the horses and donkeys to the counties.

“Yesterday, his position in that changed,” leading the counties to file the petitions, Lofgren said. However, Kiefer did not appear at the Thursday hearing and did not have an attorney there on his behalf. A relative of his was there and tried to speak, but Romanick said he could not because he was not a party to the case.

Through testimony, Lofgren and Ubben outlined the issues with Kiefer’s horses in the past two months. Dale Householder, a veterinarian, testified he was asked to assist in an investigation into Kiefer’s horses northwest of New Salem in early December. Householder issued a report, advising Kiefer to sell down his herd of 190 horses and donkeys, to improve feed access and to improve feed quality for the animals.

Householder said the majority of the animals were below optimal condition. State veterinarian Susan Keller said an investigator from her office also talked to Kiefer about the nutritional needs of the horses and was concerned Kiefer did not understand the issues.

Morton County Deputy Bryan Kirchmeier responded to the property again on Jan. 24 for reports of malnourished horses and saw one dead from the road. The sheriff’s department got a search warrant, and law enforcement officers worked with veterinarians and brand inspectors to search the property.

Sheriff Dave Shipman said numerous dead horses were found in a pile and appeared to have been dragged out of view of the road. Others were piled up in barns and a stock trailer. Kirchmeier said he found an aborted fetus that appeared to have been near term. The pasture was bare, he said.

“Basically, they had it ate down to the dirt,” Kirchmeier testified.

Shipman said Kiefer indicated on Feb. 1 that he wanted to retain rights to the animals seized from him, but has made no effort to get them back or repay liens on them.

The horses had been chewing on fence posts and tree bark, witnesses testified.

“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as extreme” as how the horses had chewed down fence posts and trees, Keller said, looking at photographs of the damage. She and the other veterinarians said it is not normal for horses to eat those objects, though some “crib” or chew on fence posts from time to time.

Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue has taken in the worst of the horses from Morton County. Triple H founder Alison Smith and Beth Tebelius, a victim-witness advocate, former police officer and horse enthusiast, testified that the rescued horses had numerous injuries that appeared to be from fighting for feed, along with ringworm and other problems from poor nutrition and lack of care. One horse had a sliced hoof, one had a tail injury and one had an eye injury, she said.

Tebelius said the horses at the New Salem-area property had little shelter other than the barns that had dead horses in them. She said live horses are usually unwilling to be around dead horses.

Burleigh County Deputy Wes Christianson testified he was called to Kiefer’s Burleigh County property on Jan. 12. The horses were nosing through snow, looking for feed and had little shelter. Christianson got in touch with Kiefer, who indicated he had lost his cellphone and had been unable to call anyone to get feed for the animals. He told Christianson where to find the horses’ water, and Christianson told him the water was frozen over. Kiefer indicated that was not unusual, Christianson testified.

Christianson also went to the property on Jan. 21, 22 and 25, and said the condition of the animals continued to deteriorate.

By Jan. 25, “a lot of them were looking pretty terrible,” he said.

Burleigh County Deputy Mike Stoltz, who is an investigator, also was involved in the case in January. He said Kiefer indicated on Feb. 1 he wanted to retain rights to the animals but has made no effort to redeem them or pay liens on them.

Deputy state veterinarian Jesse Vollmer testified that the horses in Burleigh County appeared to have lost 80 to 100 pounds from Jan. 2-28, which means they were “starving to death” and using all of their reserves to stay alive.

The two counties have requested they be allowed to put the animals up for adoption rather than sell them because there has been little financial investment on the part of the counties and a depressed horse market might make selling them unlikely anyway, Lofgren said.

“In reality, many of these animals aren’t in sellable condition,” he said.

Ubben said Burleigh County owes $1,500 so far to Menoken rancher Andrew Ennen to feed and care for the 38 horses taken from Kiefer’s Burleigh County property. The horses in that county are improving, Ubben said.

Lofgren said Morton County’s costs have been lower because Kiefer has provided feed for the more than 100 horses remaining on his property, and Triple H Miniature Horse Rescue, which took in the worst cases, has received donations to pay for care. There is enough hay on Kiefer’s New Salem-area property for two to three weeks, so Morton County may need to purchase more hay if the animals are not moved by that time, Lofgren said.

Reach Jenny Michael at 701-250-8225 or jenny.michael@bismarcktribune.com.