Specter of cattle theft stalks California county

May 27, 2011

An unusually wet spring across the Northwest this year found many ranchers in Tehama County, CA, putting off branding in hopes of drier weather. But as ranchers waited for the skies to clear, other eyes were also watching, and waiting. With an abundance of slick calves on the ground and cattle prices at unprecedented highs, the opportunity for stealing unmarked calves was clearly ripe. But although the ranching community around the town of Red Bluff, home of the celebrated Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale, is no stranger to occasional rustling, a string of cases this spring—one of them a baffling Houdini-like theft—have left law enforcement grasping at straws.

For John and Candace Owens, the trouble began on April 15 when a neighbor called from some five miles away to let them know that one of the Owenses’ first-calf heifers had turned up, tight-bagged and bawling, walking the fence line. Her calf was nowhere to be found. Over the course of the day, two more heifers in similar condition were discovered wandering the neighborhood. Over the next week, 15 of the Owenses’ JO-branded heifers were eventually collected, some wandering as many as 10 miles from the 5,000-acre field where the heifers are calved out. All were tight-bagged and had been stripped of their unbranded calves.

"They just started showing up, two or three here and two or three there," explained John, whose ranch, located at Highway 36W and Reeds Creek Road, is some eight miles west of Red Bluff.

Since that week in April, no more JO cattle have been found without their calves, but John and Candy are still wondering if more missing heifers will eventually turn up. This is big country, and cattle are largely untended throughout the winter and left to calve on their own. Misplaced cattle only turn up when the pastures are gathered in spring to brand calves and to move on to higher country.

"There are very few people out there, so it’s a good place for a rustler to work," said Jean Barton, Red Bluff rancher and columnist for the Red Bluff Daily News.

"We don’t really know how many we’ve got [missing] because not all the neighbors are done gathering," Owens remarked.

What seems clear, however, is that someone has been removing pairs from the Owenses’ pasture, keeping the calves, and dumping out the cows on the road. These unusual circumstances set the Owenses’ case apart from many other situations where rustling is suspected. Livestock theft can be notoriously difficult to prove when a few head are unaccounted for since death loss may be as likely a cause as theft. But the hand of human agency in the case of the Owenses’ missing calves is almost impossible to dispute.

The rustlers have also considerably raised the bar for pulling off baffling crimes. The 5,000-acre pasture where the heifers are wintered is kept locked, and no damage had been done to either the locks or the gate. The entire fence line was intact, and the corrals showed no signs of use. According to John Suther, special investigator for the California Bureau of Livestock Identification, someone was evidently able to get in, either by having access to a key or by cutting and mending the fence. Owens conjectures that the rustlers gathered the cattle with the use of panels and possibly dogs. But the absence of any signs of entry or loading has left Suther and the Tehama County Sheriff’s office with precious little in the way of hard evidence, and no definite suspects.

According to John Owens, however, one thing about the rustlers can be known with certainty: this is a professional bunch of thieves who know how to handle cattle.

"My cattle are very, very wild," emphasized Owens, who explained that the cows had been known to jump fences and are difficult to corral. Nevertheless, the rustlers found a way to load the cattle up without so much as a trace.

Tehama County Sheriff Dave Hencratt pointed out that the rustlers also had to have sufficient knowledge and facilities to care for early weaned calves. "It’s not your typical thief," observed Hencratt. "It’s somebody that knows the value [of cattle]… [and they also have] to have the ability to keep the calves alive after they’re weaned."

According to Cottonwood rancher Lee Loverin, the thefts at the Owenses’ ranch represent a pattern that began last year when Loverin lost 12 calves under identical circumstances no more that three miles west from where the Owenses’ pairs were taken.

"I’ve had the same thing happen to me," said Loverin. "About a dozen tight-bagged cows just showed up scattered" several miles from the ranch.

Loverin said that although he originally suspected his cattle might be getting out through a fence, the neighbor’s pasture where they eventually turned up was inaccessible enough to make that an impossibility. "I’ve been renting that pasture off and on for nine years, and cattle had never went there," said Loverin. "They [would have] had to get through two or three pastures to get there. …A tight-bagged cow’s going to be where she last saw her calf, unless she was hauled somewhere. They were hauled there; that’s all there is to it."

Although no one has been able to prove that the same party took Loverin’s and the Owenses’ cattle, the circumstances seem to point in that direction.

"It’s sure the same M.O.," Loverin laughed. "It’s very obvious that somebody’s corralling them, taking them to a facility, taking the calves off, and then hauling the cows back out and dumping ‘em."