LANTRY, S.D. — A state judge has ordered two county governments to take control of an estimated 650 wild horses at a South Dakota sanctuary where some animals may have died of starvation.

An order issued Tuesday by Circuit Court Judge Jerome Eckrich allows for the adoption or sale of healthier horses and the euthanizing of any animals that are too weak to survive the winter, the Rapid City Journal reported ( ). But if the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros ranch near Lantry complies with the deadlines and conditions imposed by the court, it could get some or all of its horses back.

The order followed a hearing in which Dewey County State’s Attorney Steven Aberle told Eckrich that the organization recognizes “that the herd has grown beyond a size that can be adequately cared for.”

Former ranch employee Colleen Burns reported that more than 30 horses had died since June. Society President Karen Sussman called Burns a disgruntled employee and said in a statement Tuesday that horses “did not die of intentional neglect.”

“Animal death is a fact every rancher and farmer in South Dakota as well as throughout the world knows is inevitable,” she said. “But the circumstances of the animal deaths at the ISPMB Ranch have been wildly misrepresented.”

A state Animal Industry Board report based on a Sept. 14 visit to the ranch said a veterinarian found some healthy horses but also a number of thin horses, including some that were “nosing through the dried manure looking for remaining hay,” as well as some with overgrown hooves and medical conditions described by Burns.

The report went on to say that “animal neglect is present at this facility.”

The order relieves Sussman of the feeding and caring for the animals and passes the responsibility to the sheriffs of Dewey and Ziebach counties.

Information from: Rapid City Journal,