Rustling on the rise in central Idaho

Jun 3, 2011

Whether the result of a struggling economy, or simple greed, instances of cattle rustling are on the increase in several western states. In few places is this more apparent than in central Idaho, where a sharp rise in the instances of apparent theft have led ranchers to band together and seek ways to stem the flood of disappearing cattle. Roughly two hundred head have already been reported missing this year as cattle from Gem, Valley, Canyon, and other surrounding counties make the transition from winter to spring and summer ranges. With the number of suspected cases so high this early in the year, area ranchers worry that without strong intervention, livelihoods may be lost as a result of the problem.

In April, the tiny town of Ola in Gem County played host to a meeting of brand inspectors, local law enforcement, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) personnel, and more than one hundred ranchers, all gathered to determine the best methods to address the growing problem. That theft is indeed occurring, all agree there can be little doubt.

"There’s certainly something going on, that’s for sure," says Idaho State Brand Inspector Larry Hayhurst.

The area is also one of the nation’s hardest hit regions in terms of wolf predation, which can make determining the true cause of a disappearance difficult. But Hayhurst and the ranchers point out that far too many cattle are missing to blame on predation, sickness, or any of the other typical causes of loss.

"The wolf kill is really bad up there, and that’s certainly part of the problem," says Hayhurst. "But there’s certainly some cases where they’ve got cows disappearing that shouldn’t have. There’s no doubt that they’ve got wolves of both the four- and two-legged variety running up there."

One of the primary goals of the town hall style meeting, says Hayhurst, is to attempt to mirror the successes in combating theft seen in other parts of the Northwest in recent years. In southeastern Oregon, for example, nearly 2,200 head have disappeared in recent years, but increased effort and scrutiny on the part of law enforcement, ranchers, and others have led to marked decreases in the instances of theft in the 2010-2011 year. Similarly, central Idaho’s Indian Valley, which saw more than 200 reported theft cases last year, cattle returns are on the rise. However, the Indian Valley borders on the region surrounding Ola, a connection that is not lost on the brand inspectors.

"They’ve got better returns than they’ve had in 10 years (in the Indian Valley) and, all of a sudden, we’ve got problems over in the Ola/Sweet area," says Hayhurst. "The problem just seems to have moved east from where it was last year."

Investigations are underway, but the methods by which theft can occur are as varied as the motives that drive it. Cattle may be quickly moved to out of state slaughter plants, and often may be dead before a theft is reported or even detected by the rancher. Just as often, points out Hayhurst, stolen cattle are simply hidden away and used to produce calves that are then marked with the thieves’ own brand. The cows can then be re-branded and sold for slaughter years later, when attention has waned. In another scenario, says Hayhurst, entire loads of stolen cattle may be hauled to states in the Midwest where branding is not required, and ownership is not verified prior to slaughter.

"When the load doesn’t cost anything, the cost of shipping doesn’t matter a whole lot," he points out. "There are holes in the system; no doubt about it. It’s not an exact science, and there are a million different ways it can happen. But something’s going on here and, quite frankly, we feel it’s organized."

Although the brand inspector’s office has some leads, Hayhurst declined to comment on specifics of the case, citing the ongoing investigation. However, their efforts are readily apparent in the form of increased road blocks by Idaho State Police and the use of randomly placed inspection stations where all trucks and trailers are subject to inspection. The location of these stations may change multiple times within a day. This unpredictability helps deter would-be thieves. In contrast to most western states, Idaho’s brand inspection office is a division of the Idaho State Police, meaning that every brand inspector in the state is a police officer, and that every state trooper is a de facto brand inspector. This relationship has allowed for close cooperation between brand inspectors and traditional law enforcement. Equally as helpful, says Hayhurst, town hall meetings, such as the one held in Ola, help keep people in the field informed on what to watch out for.

"BLM, Fish and Game, ISP, all of these groups have people out in the field," he says. "Sometimes, it’s just a matter of paying attention to what’s going on around you."

Ranchers as well, he adds, can call attention to anything that seems out of place and report those findings to their local inspector.

According to Hayhurst, the most successful deterrent they have found so far simply relies on letting everyone know that someone is watching. Towards that end, the brand inspection office provides ranchers and others with forms that can be used to take down license plate and other information on unfamiliar vehicles, which are common during the summer recreation season. The text of the form details the importance of multiple uses of public lands, and asks that users close all gates, etc. More importantly, says Hayhurst, they let everyone know that they are being observed.

"I can tell you that when everyone knows we are paying attention, it helps the losses quite a bit," he says.

Although the investigation is complex, and brand office funding is often tight, Hayhurst remains confident that the thefts will be stopped and the rustlers caught, although it may take time.

"I think that (this case) goes a little deeper than most, but we’re working hard on it," he says. "My heart goes out to that industry. Those guys risk everything and work hard to make a living, and I have tremendous respect for that." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent