Stray livestock searching for a free meal

Oct 12, 2012

The Wilderness Ranger District, Gila National Forest, has issued a “Notice of Intent to Impound Livestock” roaming freely in the Gila Wilderness along the Gila River near Turkey Creek in the vicinity of Johnson Canyon and Miller Springs. The cattle have been roaming freely for about 10 years, according to the release, and are leftover from a 2006 impoundment of unauthorized livestock conducted through a forest contract.

“The intent of the forest in implementing this notice is to properly manage grazing that occurs on national forest land. Often, strayed livestock are found to be roaming freely in sensitive areas such as lush riparian (water-dependent) areas or areas occupied by threatened and endangered species. Strayed livestock are also found in or near recreation areas heavily used by the public,” says Wilderness District Ranger Ray Torres.

By issuing the notice, the forest is notifying the public of livestock of unknown ownership observed on forest lands and its intention to gather the unauthorized livestock to determine ownership of the livestock. Once the livestock is gathered, the forest will work with the local brand inspector of the New Mexico Livestock Board to identify and contact the owner, if possible. If an owner cannot be identified, the normal procedure is to turn the animals over to the Livestock Board for disposal under New Mexico State regulations.

In past cases of strayed animals where the owner(s) of the livestock has been identified and the livestock has simply escaped the control of the owner, the owners were able to recover their livestock without penalties, once they have proven ownership. Ownership is determined either by a brand found on the animal or by an owner providing a bill of sale or other documentation that is sufficient to verify legal ownership.

The notice was published via legal notice on Oct. 3, 2012, and will be in effect for one year following the date of its publishing.

Grass theft on the rise

While Torres does not believe these cattle represent any part of an illegal grazing plan, other states have seen a rise in grass theft, both bailed and still in the field.

With the drought drying up grazing land and driving up hay prices, reports of animal owners cutting neighbors’ fences or leaving gates open so their cattle can graze on greener pastures are becoming more and more common.

“We’ve had around five cases in the past few weeks where someone says his cattle just happened to walk through a gate that just happened to be open or an instance where a fence was clearly cut,” Sheriff Michael Lucero told AP reporters. “And I suspect there are more cases, but they aren’t being reported.”

Putting a number to this is not as simple as some crimes. Often they are not reported, and even when they are, they most likely do not end with an arrest.

In one case, Wellington, CO, rancher Ted Swanson said $5,000 worth of hay was taken from a field over the Labor Day weekend. Swanson told reporters the thieves knew what they were doing because they stole high quality alfalfa from storage and ruined lower quality to get it.

Some farmers in Missouri have tried to deter thieves by painting bales of hay bold colors to help identify stolen bales sitting on others’ property.

In Texas and New Mexico, local authorities have asked the U.S. Border Patrol and other federal agencies to help watch for suspicious behavior around ranches, including cattle rustling and grass theft.

New Mexico’s Luna County sheriff, Raymond Cobos, recently unveiled a plan to help in the fight against ranch-related property crimes. His deputies are even taking classes on cattle branding to help identify stolen livestock.

“We see people with cowboy hats transporting cattle and hay all of the time, and we think nothing of it,” Cobos said. “But now if we see them at 3 a.m. in the morning ... we have to stop and think: Is there something wrong?” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor