CANYON CITY – Austin Peter Rawlins will spend two days in jail and three years on supervised probation for the starvation death of 11 cows last winter at remote Flag Prairie.
At sentencing Thursday in Grant County Circuit Court, Rawlins' decision to overwinter his herd at high elevation in southeast Grant County was described as both reckless and a calculated risk, a business decision that went horribly awry.
Rawlins, 25, pleaded guilty earlier this month to 11 counts of first-degree animal abuse, a misdemeanor. The plea deal brought the dismissal of 11 counts each of aggravated animal abuse and first-degree animal neglect, and 51 counts of second-degree animal neglect. The state also dropped all charges against Rawlins’ father, Peter Rawlins, as Austin Rawlins was the owner responsible for the cattle.
Judge William D. Cramer Jr. sentenced Austin Rawlins to 48 hours in jail on each of the 11 counts, to be served concurrently. He also faces 36 months supervised probation, and a total of 220 hours of community service.
The conditions of probation prohibit Rawlins from owning, possessing or independently managing livestock during his probation, but he can work as a ranch hand under supervision.
Rawlins must pay restitution of $2,743.47, including $90 to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office for costs from its cattle rescue last March, and the rest to Old West Federal Credit Union. He also must pay fines, court costs and attorney fees totaling $8,493.47 in the case.
Cramer said he doesn’t expect to see Rawlins back in his courtroom again.
“I think you can move on from this,” he told him.
Rawlins told the judge he made all the decisions about his cattle.
“I take full responsibility for my decisions and the actions I took,” he said.
Cramer said that from the veterinarian’s report, the situation clearly resulted from “a bad decision” but he was baffled by indications that the Rawlinses refused offers of help for the cows last winter.
However, the judge also offered his perspective that he sees far worse crimes with human victims, and some involving animal abuse, in his courtroom on a regular basis. He said the notoriety of this case was surprising, “but I don’t take this lightly.”
Cramer displayed a sheaf of letters he had received from people on all sides – some offering support for Rawlins and others upset about the plea deal. He said area ranchers noted the negative reflection on the cattle industry, and worried that the case would be used against them by environmentalists and other critics.
District Attorney Ryan Joslin, who wanted a stiffer sentence, told the judge that area ranchers were the first to pick up on the plight of the cattle. He said ranchers who flew by helicopter over the remote prairie in December 2011 and January 2012 could see two dead cows in the snow.
Grant County Undersheriff Todd McKinley began an investigation into reports that the cattle had been left to forage in the snow without hay or water. Other reports indicated that fences had been cut, apparently to let the cows move onto national forest land to browse.
Joslin said a snowplow operator encountered Rawlins and his father on horseback in January and offered help plowing in to the cattle, but was told the situation was under control.
The Sheriff’s Office executed a search warrant in March, as the cattle death toll rose to 11.
Joslin said the situation didn’t result from a chance snowstorm that caught Rawlins off guard.
“This was a conscious decision by Mr. Rawlins to winter his cows in that area,” despite an elevation of 4,400 to 4,700 feet, Joslin said. He said Rawlins’ planned to raise his cows “rough” through the winter, and then fatten them up again in the spring, a strategy that would save money.
Defense attorney Markku Sario said his client was trying a “range cattle” approach he had learned at ranch management school in Texas. That approach entailed not feeding the cows on a daily basis, letting them browse on the range and toughen up.
It was the first winter Rawlins had kept cows up as high as Flag Prairie, and the winter started out mild, Sario said. Then the snow set in.
“He thought they were going to be OK,” said Sario. “Obviously he was wrong.”
However, Sario said it wasn’t as if he intended to kill the cows.
Cramer acknowledged that point.
“I don’t really believe that Mr. Rawlins had any intent of killing his cattle, because it’s his livelihood,” he said. He said this crime “carries its own penalty” in that Rawlins has already lost the value of his cattle.
The judge rejected Joslin’s request for a letter of apology to the community, saying it “just doesn’t fit” the case.
He said he expects Rawlins to work and not be “a burden on the state,” and said he can work as a ranch hand under supervision.
Joslin asked that Rawlins not be allowed to work under his father.
The judge called it awkward, as the case against Peter Rawlins has been dropped, but he agreed to the prohibition for at least a year. After that, Cramer said, he would consider lifting it.Read more on bluemountaineagle.com.