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Court impounds Wilder Ranch buffalo

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Ranch bison
The Wilder Ranch north of McLaughlin, S.D., has about 6,000 bison, mainly in feedlots like this one shown in February 2009, around the headquarters. Its pastures stretch from McLaughlin to near Selfridge, about 18 miles.

 Thousands of apparently starving bison belonging to a Florida real estate owner have been impounded by authorities in South Dakota, where a county sheriff is overseeing their feed and care until a judge decides the animals’ future.

This is the second winter in three years that authorities have been called into the Maurice Wilder Ranch after reports of starving animals. This time, South Dakota authorities have moved beyond voluntary improvements to taking physical control of somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 bison.

The ranch extends across dozens of miles of pasture land in South Dakota and North Dakota from McLaughlin, S.D. to Selfridge, though the ranch headquarters and primary feedlot are in South Dakota.

Corson (S.D.) County Sheriff Keith Gall said he is at the ranch daily making sure the animals are getting hay and water and says the county has spent between $50,000 and $100,000 in less than a week on feed and hiring snowplows to open up feeding lanes.

Normally, animals would be removed in an impoundment, but the sheer number of animals and deep snow prevent moving them.

Gall said the situation is severe.

“There have been a number of animals found dead; since I’ve been out here, well over a dozen have been found dead,” Gall said. He said others have broken legs

“It’s a definite bad situation that should have been corrected a long time ago,” Gall said. “He’s (Wilder) had issues out here on and off, but this is the worst it’s ever been.”

He said his office had been involved for weeks with calls from motorists, who had been striking roaming bison out on the adjacent highway. No injury accidents were reported.

A court hearing had been scheduled for Monday, but was canceled when Wilder did not contest the impoundment order.

Wilder’s attorney, Jackie Stebbins, of Bismarck, said she is working with the Corson County State’s Attorney to resolve the matter and anticipates resolution will come “soon.”

Three calls to Wilder and to his corporate ranch overseer Dan O’Brien were not returned.

Besides his Tampa Bay, Fla., real estate holdings, Wilder, 71, has farms and ranches in seven states. He has received more than $2.3 million in farm subsidies since 2005, including $108,000 for his farm operation in Corson County.

South Dakota State Veterinarian Dustin Odekoven said the state is looking for a long-term solution in short order.

He said options under the impoundment are to reassign ownership of the bison, to sell them at public auction, or to return them to the owner.

“I think we’ve seen enough. I think we are getting tough, that’s why we are where we’re at. We’ve exhausted all other options,” Odekoven said.

The Wilder Ranch has several days to come up with a management plan for the state vet’s review and approval

“The length of time they’re under impoundment depends on the management plan,”Odekoven said.

He said the judge will have the final say.

Corson County State’s Attorney Eric Bogue requested the impoundment order after working with state animal health officials, who have been looking into the situation for months.

Bogue said no criminal charges have been filed, but he’s not ruling out the possibility.

More immediately, the court judge will deal with assessing costs to Wilder to pay Corson County’s bills for feed and snow removal and approve a management plan, possibly this week, Bogue said.

He said state animal officials “tried valiantly to work with Wilder and then turned it over to us.”

He said it’s his understanding the all the ranch bison are  on the South Dakota side of the operation.

Sioux County State’s Attorney John Gosbee said that other than one complaint from a North Dakota landowner, he hasn’t had any contact on the situation.

Gosbee did file animal trespass charges against Wilder’s operation during the winter of 2008-09, when starvation caused the bison to crash property fences and break into private feed stores.

North Dakota and South Dakota animal health officials also intervened that winter and required Wilder to show he was taking proper care of the bison.

Gall said the ranch has the same problems again this winter. He said feed isn’t adequate for the huge number of animals, the ranch equipment isn’t up to the job and some ranch employees don’t understand the stress of the extreme cold and snow.

Gall said the bison are not contained to one area and some are running at large on the ranch because cross fences are down or buried under snow.

He said he’s confident that most are now near food and water.

(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 701-748-5511, or Lauren@westriv.com.)

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