PASCO — A rancher is under investigation for animal cruelty after 29 dead cows were seen this week off Highway 395.

A person working in the area started to worry when he saw a pair of donkeys in bad shape during the past month.

Then he called the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office when he saw dead cattle on the Bureau of Land Management property..

Deputies flew over the property earlier this week and saw the dead animals scattered across 200 acres, Franklin County Capt. Monty Huber told the Tri-City Herald.

When they didn’t see any sign of food for the cattle, either in bins or on the ground, or tire tracks in the snow, investigators believed that the owner, James Peter Marek, 42, let them starve, Huber said.

In response, deputies arrested him on suspicion of 29 counts of animal cruelty.

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But Marek’s attorney, Scott Johnson, argued in a preliminary court hearing Thursday that sheriff’s deputies have no proof the animals starved.

Johnson said the cattle died in the early February winter storms.

Marek filed a claim Feb. 10 with the U.S. Department of Agriculture saying he lost an unspecified number of livestock because of the weather, said Johnson.

The USDA confirmed that it received the claim Feb. 13, he said.

“It shows clearly that he wasn’t trying to hide anything,” he said. “He was taking a loss on it. … Animals die, which is obviously bad for the animals, but also comes at a cost for the animal owners.”

It was part of a widespread loss of cattle across the state from the severe weather, he said.

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An estimated 1,850 dairy cows died during the blizzard on Feb. 9 and 10. The loss was estimated by the Washington State Dairy Association at $3.5 to $4 million.

In addition, Johnson said, prosecutors and deputies don’t have any proof of starvation because the necropsy — or animal autopsy — hasn’t been conducted to determine what killed them.

“If you believe the affidavit … 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 Judge Jackie Shea Brown on Thursday.

While Deputy Prosecutor Teddy Chow noted that there wasn’t any food found in the area, the judge sided with Johnson and let Marek be released from jail.

Now it’s up to prosecutors to decide 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,” prosecutor Shawn Sant said. “The allegations are concerning and warrant further investigation for all interested parties.”

Marek has faced troubles with the law both in Idaho and in Washington in recent years.

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 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.

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, according to the Idaho County Free Press.

He was found guilty of altering the brands, and paid $3,157 in fines.

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This story was corrected on March 25 to reflect that the estimate of Yakima Valley dairy cattle killed in the blizzard Feb. 9-10 is 1,850, not 18,000.