Friday, January 13, 2012

When the cows donít come home

Cattle rustling on the rise, say state officials

Express Staff Writer

Cattle graze near U.S. Highway 20 on Wednesday evening. With prices for beef rising, state brand inspectors say cattle theft has increased greatly over the past three years. Photo by David N. Seelig

The high price of beef and the growing ease of selling items on the Internet have led to an uptick in cattle theft, say Idaho brand inspectors. Though no instances of theft have been reported in Blaine County, officials say the statewide trend could spread.

"Any time the price of cattle goes up, especially like what they're doing now, the bad guys come out of the woodwork," said Tyler Peterson, deputy brand inspector for the state.

The price of a live steer has risen from an average $114.73 per 100 pounds in 2011 to a current $124.75 per 100 pounds this month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that it expects the average price of a steer this year to reach between $120 and $128 per 100 pounds, mostly because of dropping supplies and rising demand for beef.

Len Gibson, Idaho state brand inspector in the Caldwell office, said he's seen a large rise in rustling over the past few years, a rise he attributes at least partly to the rising prices.

"Would you rather go rob $1,500 from a bank, where there are cameras and security, or would you rather go out in the hills where there's no one to see?" Gibson asked. "It's a quick way to make a buck."

Though state inspectors report no known instances of cattle rustling in Blaine County, Idaho State Brand Inspector Larry Hayhurst said rustling has been on the rise, especially in southeastern Idaho. The Cottonwood Grazing Association in Bannock, Franklin and Caribou counties has reported the largest loss so far—20 head of cattle and 40 calves over the past year. Gibson said in an average year, cattle ranchers can count on a 1 percent loss, but those figures have risen to 4 to 5 percent.

The state currently has about eight open cases, as opposed to the two or three that Peterson said the state would normally investigate in any given year. Gibson said more are likely to come in, as cattle are still feeding in much of the state due to this year's mild winter.

"Those cows are just happy as larks, still on the feed," he said. "We don't have good, hard figures yet."

And figures can be misleading, he said, as losses are not always due to rustling.

"We don't know how many of them the wolves are eating, or if they are getting poisoned or whatever," Gibson said. "When that cow is flat gone and you can't find her anywhere—there's no real way of putting a figure to it."

Normally, the inspectors said, a predator would leave a "death site" behind that range riders and owners can find and document. But if a predator has killed an animal and scavengers have finished it off, it can be hard to find the site, leaving owners to guess about the bovine's fate.

Cattle rustling has occurred for thousands of years, appearing in ancient Irish and Greek mythology. According to Peterson, the current traditional method of cattle rustling is essentially pulling a truck up to the field or pasture, rounding up cows, steers and calves and herding them into the vehicle before the owner notices.

If the animals are branded, Peterson said, the rustler will typically mix those cattle in with his own and bring them to a sale yard, hoping the brand inspector working the yard doesn't look closely enough to tell there are two different brands in the bunch.


The more difficult thefts to catch are those of "slick" calves, or young cattle that have not yet been branded. Peterson said it's a favorite trick of rustlers to pick up isolated dairy calves and try to sell them.

"Usually those young calves don't have brands on them, so it's kind of hard to trace back," he said. "But usually if you see a guy in a Suburban with a calf in the back, you know there might be a problem."

According to Idaho law, cattle brands must be inspected when the animals are sold, slaughtered or transported across state lines.

"It doesn't matter how many times that cow is sold, she has to have a brand inspection every time," Peterson said.

The most common way to catch rustlers is at a sale yard, Peterson and Gibson said, and at highway stops heading out of the state. If the livestock is worth more than $150, the theft is considered a felony in Idaho.

"And if it's breathing, it's worth more than $150," Gibson said with a laugh.

But rustlers are now using the Internet to get away with their crimes and avoid conviction.

The number of cattle being sold on Craigslist has skyrocketed over the years, Gibson said. Sales on the Internet are not as tightly regulated as professional sales, and people who buy cattle online may not be aware of the branding laws.

"The people that are trading these cattle on Craigslist are probably not real cattle people," Gibson said. "It could be a real problem. If you had a bunch of stolen cattle for sale, you can put them on Craigslist and next thing you know, you can sell most of them."

Sometimes these cattle will eventually make it to sale yards or slaughterhouses, where brand inspectors catch them. Most times, the owner is guilty only of ignorance, Gibson said, not realizing that their cow's brand should have been inspected at the time of sale.

"When we find those cattle six or eight months down the road with someone else's iron on them, we ask the owner where they got it," he said. "They say they got it on the Internet."

As for prevention, the inspectors said there is little that can be done to keep cattle from being stolen. Katie Breckenridge, co-owner of the B-Bar-B Ranch near Carey, said her methods have resulted in little to no theft over the years.

"Thank God, we haven't had any trouble," she said. "We brand immediately and we put double ear tags on either ear."

Breckenridge said she also doesn't run cattle on public lands, but keeps them on her own land and makes sure the range riders have a good presence around the herds. The riders don't have a set routine, so any watching potential raiders wouldn't know when to expect herds to be unattended, and gates are always shut and locked.

Gibson said these methods don't always work, however, and ranchers have to rely on hope and a little bit of luck.

"[Owners] can put a good brand and a good earmark on them, but when they turn the cattle out, you could ride all day and not see all of them," he said. "You have to put them out and hope when the time comes, you can find them all."

Katherine Wutz:

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