Rustlers roam western states

Nov 6, 2009

Rustlers roam western states

As fall roundups get into full swing and cattle begin to come in off summer ranges, ranchers in some areas may need to look closely and make sure their cattle are all present. Whether the result of a bad economy or simple greed, livestock theft seems to be a growing problem in many western states.

"Every state that I have talked to has seen an increase," says Wyoming Brand Commissioner Lee Romsa. According to Romsa, reports of theft in his state have taken a significant jump compared to past years.

"We’re not only seeing more theft reports, we’re seeing reports of much larger thefts," he added. "Some reports involve entire truckloads of missing stock."

In southeast Oregon and northern Nevada, however, truckloads are just the beginning. According to Oregon state brand inspector Roger Huffman, livestock theft has been an ongoing problem on summer ranges in that region for at least three years. A survey of brand owners in the area, conducted by the Oregon Department of Agriculture, showed that nearly 1,200 head were reported stolen from the region in 2007 and 2008. As of August 2009, 63 more animals have been added to the tally.

"We’ve been working heavily on this, trying to get it stopped and get somebody convicted," said Huffman. According to Nevada inspector Chris Collis, his state is also working to corral the thieves. "We’ve stepped up enforcement and had officers patrolling the backcountry," said Collis. "We run down every lead we can. We’re sure (the thieves) are aware of the extra presence, so it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of results we see when the numbers come in this fall."

Collis added that cooperation between the brand offices of the three states, as well as local county law enforcement, has been exemplary. All parties agree that the rustling is occurring on too large a scale to be individuals, and that this is likely the work of a well-organized group.

The thefts have become such a problem that area ranchers have also taken matters into their own hands, banding together to offer a reward for information leading to the thieves’ conviction, a reward that is currently in excess of $50,000. According to Larry Hayhurst, Idaho’s head brand inspector, that fact more than any other should underline the severity of the situation.

"Any time you’ve got ranchers shelling out that kind of money, you know you’ve got a serious situation," said Hayhurst, who is concerned by the sheer size of the theft taking place and the rustlers’ apparent ability to slip the cattle out of the region unnoticed.

"That operation is huge," said Hayhurst. "That many cattle, in any brand state, something should show up. It’s perplexing."

However, Hayhurst does admit that, at the multi-state level, brand inspection programs are not a perfect tool when it comes to preventing livestock theft.

"There are a lot of ways to beat the system," he says. "You can ship them to a non-brand state, or to a state that doesn’t closely examine cattle entering feedlots. When the load is free, the cost of shipping doesn’t matter a whole lot."

Because of the thieves’ proximity to Idaho’s southwest corner, Idaho brand inspectors have been involved in the investigation. However, that is not the only investigation of livestock theft on a large scale taking place in Idaho. In central Idaho’s Indian Valley, cattle are also disappearing at an alarming rate. According to estimates, at least 200 head were missing last year, and more are expected after this year’s gather. The Indian Valley is also home to some of the country’s highest levels of wolf predation, and the thefts are having a devastating effect on area ranchers who are now forced to contend with wolves of both the four- and two-legged variety.

"It’s pretty frustrating," says Lynn Gibson, local brand inspector for the region. "One ranch in our area has 20 confirmed wolf kills this year. They’ve just gathered two of their pastures, and are short 40 head of calves in addition to the wolf kills. That’s over a truckload of calves. Not everybody can afford to lose that much."

Gibson added that the ranch still had two pastures left to gather, so total losses were not yet known. Like a lot of brand inspectors, Gibson feels that increased communication between brand states may help to stem the flow of cattle out of the area. Hayhurst agrees that interstate travel is making the cattle difficult to track. He also points out that as older ranches are replaced by new investors, fewer and fewer producers know who their neighbors are.

"Lots of new investors are buying land," says Hayhurst. "You could have somebody from Oregon pasture their cattle and leave, and we may not even know they had been there."

In order to raise public awareness, inspectors and local sheriffs held meetings last spring in nearby Cambridge, ID, encouraging area ranchers to pay closer attention to strange vehicles and people on the range.

According to Hayhurst, the added scrutiny has helped. "We think we’re getting close," he says. "But we won’t know until cattle come in from the summer ranges."

Gibson echoes that sentiment, adding that he will not quit until the thieves are stopped. "I’m old enough to retire," says Gibson, "but I’m going to stick around long enough to see this thing through."

For ranchers who feel they may have been the victim of rustling in these or other areas, Nevada’s Collis stresses that early reporting is an essential step to prevent further theft, but a step that is often not taken. "Ranchers are the most trusting people in the world," says Collis, "they don’t want to think that the worst has happened."

The problem, he says, is that ranchers will take the extra time to make sure their cattle are missing for certain before making a report. "We end up six months behind the curve," says Collis. "By that time, we’re chasing a pretty cold trail."

He says that he and his office would prefer that the ranchers report something amiss before taking that extra ride. "They can always call and let us know their cattle have been found," he points out. Anyone who has any information regarding cattle rustling in these areas, or elsewhere, is encouraged to call local law enforcement and their state brand office. — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent