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Arlee rancher at center of animal abuse controversy

ARLEE —Ron Printz was only 2 years old when he got his first horse. He can recall having horses almost every year since. On his ranch on South Valley Creek Road in Arlee, Printz has had at different times, an assortment of more than 100 horses, hogs and cows during the past 20 or so years he has lived there.

“I do love animals. I think more of my animals than I do most people,” Printz said.

Several of Printz’s fellow community members disagree. Many believe Printz should not be allowed to care for animals. They point to years of calls and complaints to local entities including the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, tribal police and even the Environmental Protection Agency, as evidence of a community’s concern of alleged ongoing animal abuse and neglect on Printz’s ranch.

In March 2010, two horses, a mare and her foal, were seized from the Printz property. “I determined that, in my position as the sheriff, the two were neglected animals,” then Lake County Sheriff Lucky Larson told the Valley Journal.

Larson said deputies had visited the Printz ranch before, responding to calls into dispatch on suspected animal neglect, but it was the first time Larson recalled animals being removed from the ranch. Printz was originally cited for animal cruelty, a misdemeanor, but after further investigations conducted by the LCSO, Printz was charged with cruelty to animals, misdemeanors, and aggravated cruelty to animals, a felony. According to court documents, the charges resulted from poor conditions observed on Printz’s property from Dec. 1, 2009, to the time of the investigation.

But the State agreed not to charge Printz with these offenses if he complied with the terms of a deferred prosecution agreement, which Printz and Lake County Attorney Mitch Young signed on April 13, 2010. The agreement was to be active for five years, and if Printz did not comply with the terms, the State could file charges, with Printz waiving any objection.

According to terms of the agreement, Printz was required to reduce his cattle herd to no more than one bull, 25 cows, and two yearling heifers. He was also supposed to have no more than 10 horses, one sow and one boar. Whenever any offspring were produced, Printz was required to sell or transfer animals to maintain his allotted number of animals. He had until Aug. 30, 2010, to reduce his herd, and on April 12, 2011, Deputy County Attorney Cory Allen made a motion to dismiss with prejudice on the grounds that Printz had successfully complied with the conditions. On April 13, 2011, Judge Chuck Wall dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning the same charges cannot be filed, in Justice Court.

However, Printz could still potentially face an aggravated cruelty to animals charge, a felony.

“The county never followed through. He was supposed to keep the number of animals down, but when the county backed off … he didn’t do it on his own,” said Western Montana Department of Livestock supervisor and enforcement officer Ernie McCaffree.

“They have the ammunition. (Lake County) could go in there and charge him now,” McCaffree said of the potential felony charge.

A week ago, on Wednesday, March 21, the Montana State Department of Livestock assisted Printz in removing 52 horses from his property.

“(Printz) decided he couldn’t take care of them anymore,” said McCaffree, adding that Printz will receive money for the animals, but will have to pay for transportation costs. “He was agreeable, and we assisted him with loading them up and transporting them.”

“This brings him pretty close to complying with the deferred prosecution agreement,” said McCaffree, noting that Printz kept two mules, two saddle horses, a couple of Shetland ponies and burros. There were also a few “thin” horses that the Department of Livestock did not take because McCaffree didn’t think they would make the trip. He said the condition of horses hauled to the feedlot was “fair,” but that they were starting “to go downhill.”

“Basically the Department of Livestock took over; the only reason he is in compliance (now) is because of the Department of Livestock,” McCaffree said. “Lake County dropped the ball on the whole thing.”

“A whole bunch of horses were taken, and I’m not happy about it at all. There were some good horses in there. I think we’ve done a good job with the horses,” Printz said.

In addition to violation of the agreement regarding herd numbers, McCaffree explained that Printz was also violating another aspect of the agreement, which said he must comply with all state and federal laws. In particular, that all hogs, bulls and unaltered (stud) male horses must be retained as required by law.

“Stud horses can not run in open range, but they were yesterday. We got them off of open range,” McCaffree said. “He’s been in constant violation.”

This is not the first time McCaffree has visited the Printz ranch.

At one time, Printz had more than 100 hogs running freely, causing damage and getting into nearby creeks and rivers. On Jan. 6, 2009, Printz was cited for permitting swine to run at large. He pleaded guilty and paid an $85 fine. On Feb. 21 and 22, 2009, Printz was charged with the same violation, pleaded guilty and paid two fines of $135.

McCaffree said he eventually became fed up with writing violations and took away all of Printz’s hogs. It took five horse trailers to load up the 100 hogs on Printz’s property.

McCaffree hadn’t had any more complaints about hogs until recently, when more hogs were sighted on the property.

“I’ll have to address the hog issue,” he said.

“They’ve been investigating for 20 years; that’s how long it’s been going on,” said a neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous because of feared repercussions from Printz or his workers.

“We need to do something,” the neighbor added. “But I don’t know what to do. I’m exhausted.”

The neighbor said over the years, concerned neighbors of Printz’s have explored all avenues and tried contacting everyone from the tribal police to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, without any esults. And over the years, the neighbor claims Printz’s animals have damaged property and land. The neighbor said a large part of the problem is that Printz does not properly maintain his fences, so his animals run at large. 

“The pigs have done damage to my property, and the blind bull has torn down fences,” said the neighbor. “We are all concerned about the water supply, because those pig pens are next to the well water. It’s got to run down into my water supply. I haven’t had the water tested, but I buy bottled water. I’m scared of (drinking the water).”

David Rise, with the EPA in Helena, said he had visited the Printz Ranch a couple of years ago after receiving a complaint about hogs polluting Finley Creek. 

“It met the definition of a small concentrated animal feeding operation,” said Rise, explaining that Printz was told to move the animals and confine them away from any water source. 

“I did talk to him once,” Rise said, adding that he later checked in to see if Printz complied, and he had. “He doesn’t come under my (jurisdiction) anymore.”

However, some Arlee residents believe charging Printz with violations and fines does not solve the bigger problem. 

“He’s been fined several times. It’s Lake County revenue,” said Susan Rogers, who said she is fed up with watching nothing being done while animals starve and die from neglect. “I just don’t think he should have animals. He’s a hoarder and collector … for the last five years I know of, he has fed his livestock only outdated bread from the bread store in Missoula. He doesn’t even take the plastic wrapping off.”

According to Printz, he had a bread contract at one time and fed the horses with it. 

“They like it a lot; that’s all bread is — it is wheat and grain,” Printz asserted. “None of them are abused. Some need their feet trimmed, but I’m getting a little old to hold their feet up.”

Arlee resident Becky Seiler said she used to live and work on the Printz Ranch from 2004 to 2008. She said she finally left after becoming so disgusted with how the ranch was run and the way animals were treated. In 2009, she said she went back to work for Printz, and that summer he allegedly assaulted her. Assault charges were filed in the Lake County Justice Court and Printz pleaded not guilty. The prosecutor eventually dismissed the case. However, Seiler said their dispute did not stop Printz from asking her to help him castrate stallions in 2010. But according to Seiler, it was impossible because of the lack of fencing. She maintains that no stallions or bulls have been castrated since. Seiler said she still visits Printz’s ranch and is friends with several of his workers.

“Because of the lack of fences, they all run together and breed at will. I witnessed five to six studs at one time breeding a mare … I witnessed at least 10 bulls have a young cow to the ground to breed her. She died,” Seiler said. 

She added that another horrifying aspect are the more than 50 cats and dogs that reside inside the Printz residence, which makes for unsanitary living conditions for both humans and animals. 

“I lived upstairs in Ron’s house in 2009. So I also know he hoards dogs and cats … he never cleans up the feces piles …the house itself should be condemned,” Seiler said. “The dogs are beginning to pack up and attack the new baby calves, which have all died at this point.” 

In addition to the animal cruelty complaints, Rogers maintains that another issue is the amount of pollution and garbage on the Printz Ranch. 

“His whole landscape is nothing but garbage, old box cars, railroad ties, old moldy trailer houses and just plain junk, not excluding the several thousands of plastic bread wrappers and whatever (else) that litters his place,” Rogers said. 

She said she has witnessed a brand new baby colt caught in barbed wire and has even taken puppies found in a ditch near Printz’s property to the animal shelter in Polson. Rogers and another Arlee resident, Rebecca Wiley-Meyer, said they have made several calls to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, some answered, most not. The most recent call took place two weeks ago after the women spotted a dead horse. Deputy Ryan Funke responded to that call, but Rogers and Wiley-Meyer said they have been trying to contact somebody in LCSO for some time about a cow with a torn udder.

“I’m just not getting anywhere. It just makes me mad, and in the meantime, animals are starving … I love animals,” said Wiley-Meyer. 

Rogers said she finally spoke with Lake County Sheriff’s Deputy Becky McClintock a few days after reporting the dead horse. Rogers said she was told that a veterinarian inspected the cow. 

According to Printz, wolves attacked the cow, and he had taken it to a vet on three different occasions. 

“Yes, her udder was in bad shape, but calls that it was dragging on the ground and puss was coming out; that wasn’t true at all,” Printz explained. “She had a drain hole in the udder. She was a lactating cow that got attacked by wolves. We finally had to kill the cow because of nosy people.” 

And it’s the complaints and the constant calls that Printz can’t understand. He said he understands people mean well, but explained he has both old and young animals, and their condition can’t be determined from the road. 

McCaffree added that this situation is difficult to contend because the animals are personal property on private land. 

“They’re my old friends …I’m a person who likes animals for company,” Printz shared. “I’m 70 years old; I guess I should give up. I know people mean well, but they don’t pet the horses or talk to the horses.”  

For Printz, the solution is simple: come talk to him.

“I wish people would come talk to me. I have never had so many people cause so many problems as they have here,” he said.

Recently, Lt. Michael Sargeant and Det. Erwin Lobdell of the LCSO said they were asked by Sheriff Jay Doyle to resolve the issues concerning Printz.

“The sheriff wants us to make sure we see it all the way through,” Sargeant said, adding that the investigation will be a joint effort involving several local and state entities and agencies.

Rogers and Wiley-Meyer said they were pleased to find that Sargeant and Lobdell were heading the cause, but after years of hitting roadblocks with local law enforcement agencies, there won’t be any sighs of relief anytime soon.

“People have tried so hard in the past, and they are tired of trying,” Rogers said. “I’m old, (but) I started this, and I’m going to (see this through to) the end.”

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