An Idaho rancher says 29 of his cows died in winter storms in Washington state, but investigators suspect he let them starve.
James Peter Marek, 42, of Slate Creek, Idaho, appeared in Franklin County Superior Court last week after being arrested for investigation of animal cruelty, the Tri-City Herald reported .
Marek filed a claim with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in February saying he lost an unspecified number of cows.
The Washington State Dairy Association estimates 1,800 dairy cows died during the blizzard on Feb. 9 and 10, at an estimated loss of $3.5 to $4 million.
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office said investigators received a report from a witness who spotted dead cattle on Bureau of Land Management property off Highway 395. Deputies flew over the area and saw the carcasses scattered across less than a third of a square mile (over 0.8 square kilometers), Capt. Monty Huber said.
Deputies said they found no sign that Marek’s cows had been provided any food and there were no tire tracks in the snow suggesting they’d been attended to.
Marek’s attorney, Scott Johnson, said there’s no evidence of what caused the deaths because no necropsies have been conducted. Judge Jackie Shea Brown ordered Marek released from custody Thursday.
“All that the witness knows is that there is possibly 29 dead cows. But there is no evidence of how these cows died,” Johnson told the judge.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant said he has not decided whether to file charges.
“The investigation is ongoing, and as additional information is obtained, the prosecutor’s office will evaluate what charges, if any, are appropriate,” Sant said. “The allegations are concerning and warrant further investigation for all interested parties.”
Marek has faced legal trouble in Idaho and Washington before. In 2016, he was accused of stealing cattle in Idaho from a South Dakota rancher. He bought the cattle for the rancher, then used his own brand to brand them and sell them, according to the Idaho County Free Press. He was ordered to pay nearly $3,200 in restitution.
On Feb. 26, Franklin County deputies found him in a warehouse parking lot on the Pasco-Kahlotus highway hitching up a $9,000 trailer and 500-gallon (1,893-liter) stainless steel water tank. Marek told deputies he was letting the water in the tank thaw, but didn’t tell them that he borrowed the trailer in 2015 and never returned it, according to court records.
He’s awaiting trial on four charges, including possessing stolen property, obstructing law enforcement and resisting arrest.