CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Prosecutors found no criminal wrongdoing in the case of a horse named Valentine that survived for eight weeks in the Wyoming wilderness after being left behind by a backcountry guide outfit when it became too sick to move in an area populated with grizzly bears.
The Teton County Attorney's Office made its decision Thursday based on an animal cruelty investigation by the Wyoming Board of Livestock and police.
"We all agree that no criminal charges are appropriate," Clark Allan, chief of the county attorney's office criminal division, said. "I'd add that criminal charges by nature are very specific and all the elements in the charge have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and this just isn't a criminal case."
B.J. Hill, the owner of the horse and the outfitting company, declined comment on the finding.
Hill had previously defended his company's handling of the situation, saying critics didn't have the whole story about what happened.
A veterinarian who examined Valentine as part of the investigation found her "healthy and in good body condition."
The incident raised debate in the horse-loving resort region of Jackson Hole over whether the guide company did the right thing in leaving the horse, did all it could to find her or should have put her down to spare her suffering.
According to the Livestock Board investigation, Valentine was among a string of horses carrying equipment down from the backcountry campsites on about Oct. 25 when the 6-year-old mare laid down about halfway down the trail.
The guide leading the horses said Valentine didn't appear sick and so he coaxed her to get back up. However, she laid down two more times and refused to get up again after the third time.
With a mixture of snow and rain falling and being dark on the mountain, the guide decided to get the other horses and equipment down the mountain and leave her behind. He did not tie her to a tree, hoping that she would eventually make it down the trail on her own because horses tend to naturally follow familiar trails.
When two guides returned the next morning, Valentine was gone. They searched along the trail and surrounding meadows that day and the following day but found no sign of her, according to the report.
Subsequent searches before snow made travel impossible also yielded no results.
It wasn't until mid-December when a worker grooming snow trails in the Bridger-Teton National Forest spotted Valentine and called the U.S. Forest Service. On Dec. 20, Hill, his son and a Forest Service employee worked for about nine hours to get the mare back home, leading it out of the wild by a snowmobile.
Veterinarian Thatch Winslow, who examined Valentine for the investigation, said in his opinion the owners "acted responsibly" in the handling the situation.
"Euthanizing the horse on the trail quite clearly would not have been wise (she survived and recovered well) and tying her to a tree until their return may well have endangered her life to predators," Winslow said in a written report to the livestock board investigators.
Hill's company has consistently attained the highest rankings in the Forest Service's annual permit reviews, which include treatment of horses, according to an agency official.