Specter of cattle shootings stalks northern Nevada

Nov 11, 2011

With gathering and weaning going full tilt, most ranchers in northern Nevada already have plenty on their minds this time of year. But a spate of cattle shootings across the northern half of the state has added an unsettling and slightly sinister aspect to fall works for a number of ranching families. On at least four wellknown ranches that run cattle in Elko, Humboldt, Eureka and Lander counties, an alarming number of cattle are coming off the public range with festering bullet holes in their bellies. And although there has been plenty of speculation about who could be out on the desert shooting livestock, so far, no one has come forward to expose those responsible.

“It’s obviously somebody that doesn’t like cattle,” one affected rancher said. “It’s damn sure not the animal rights people.”

Veterinarian Dr. Boyd Spratling of Deeth, NV, first recognized the gunshot wounds three weeks ago when he was on a pregchecking call. Several cows came through the chute with round, abscessed sores bearing a tell-tale hole in the center.

“We’ve seen them in the past,” said Spratling. “Granulating wounds that [are] three inches in diameter with a very specific, very circular small caliber hole in the center.”

According to Spratling’s estimation, the wounds were between 10 days to three weeks old. All had abscessed subcutaneously, and were leaking puss through the bullet hole.

“I pointed it out to the cow boss, and … it wasn’t a big deal because there was [only] a couple of them,” Spratling recalled. “You think, ‘Well, some sonofagun’s out there messing around causing problems.’” Yet writing the attacks off as a bit of horseplay quickly became much more difficult. While processing replacement heifers on a ranch some 50 miles north of where the first bunch were found, Spratling discovered more cattle bearing similar gunshot wounds.

“Two days later, I go to another ranch, and we saw maybe 15 of them,” Spratling said.

A pattern has been emerging. On at least four major ranches, Spratling estimates he has identified 40-50 cattle with similar abdominal gunshot wounds. Area ranchers, who are presently choosing to remain anonymous, reckon that the total number may be much higher.

The attacks bear striking similarities. All of the wounded cattle have smallbore gunshot wounds, mostly to the abdomen. The lower-caliber rounds do not appear to be piercing the body cavity, and no deaths have been reported, although as Spratling pointed out, “We don’t know what’s out there dead in the brush someplace.”

Because the wounds are not deep, no lead has been recovered that would determine what caliber weapon was used.

Moreover, none of the wounds are fresh, and appear to have been made late September or early October.

But the most confounding similarity is that almost all of the cattle would have been on extremely remote public rangelands when they were shot. Wounded cattle have been identified across a vast area ranging from the Idaho border south to Interstate 80. The question of who could be trekking across some of Nevada’s most far-flung territory to shoot cattle, and why, is on everyone’s mind. And although ranchers have been cautious about pointing fingers, the attacks seem to be too widespread, and too systematic to fit the mold of random mischief.

One rancher, who estimates that 40-50 head have been wounded on his outfit alone, pointed out that his cattle were located 30-40 miles from a paved road when they were shot.

“You’d have to be on a mission to do it,” he observed.

“You wouldn’t just happen to be in the neighborhood.”

“To have that many in that large an area … to me it seems very contrived and malicious," Spratling concurred.

Spratling came forward last week in the Elko Daily Free Press to raise awareness of the issue. His hope is that with more people on the lookout for suspicious activity, the shooters will cease and desist.

“There are a lot of good sportsmen and other public land users that would come to the defense of grazing,” Spratling noted. “[I]f those people are aware of what’s going on, and the industry’s aware that things are happening, I think we have a lot better chance of … stop[ping] more from happening.”

According to Elko County Sheriff Jim Pitts, neither he nor any sheriff in the other counties affected had been notified. Agriculture Enforcement Supervisor Blane Northrop at the Nevada Department of Agriculture had also not received any complaint.

Ranchers harbored doubts that local law enforcement would pursue the rash of shootings aggressively, and most had small hopes that any party would ever be held accountable for the act. That said, speculation about who might be out on Nevada’s remote public lands putting their cross-hairs on cattle is widespread.

“We’ll probably never know who did it,” Spratling reflected. “There are a lot of people out there that don’t like having cattle on public lands. Does that play into it? Is it just malicious vandalism of some type? [I]t leaves one to wonder and ponder about the motives.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent