Wyoming Sees Uptick In Cattle Theft

Author: Kristy

As cattle prices spiral higher, so too does the value of those cattle to rustlers.

CHEYENNE – Wyoming has come a long way since the days of the Johnson County Cattle War, when 19th-century rustlers stole livestock with impunity.

But cattle rustling is still very much a reality in Wyoming and elsewhere, and with future prices for young beef cattle hitting record highs this year, criminals have been increasingly turning to rustling as a source of easy money.

Ann Wittmann, executive director of the Wyoming Beef Council, said the rising prices have been caused by a drop in overall supply without a corresponding drop in consumer demand for beef products.

“Nationally, we have the smallest cow herd that we’ve had in 60 years,” Wittmann said. “It’s significant. So, of course, that makes those animals more valuable, and what’s adding to that is consumer demand is still very positive.”

As a result, prices for Wyoming calves are now more than triple what they were in 2000, and once those calves come of age, they can fetch upwards of $2,500 each.

“We’re talking about a calf, somewhere between 50 and 100 pounds, is ranging from $320 to $375,” Wittmann said. “If we go back to 2000, the price was just under $100.”

In March, CBS News reported on the plight of Oklahoma rancher Jet McCoy, who had 99 head of cattle stolen from his ranch gradually over a period of months.

Two ranch hands were arrested on suspicion of stealing the cattle, valued at more than $100,000. The two admitted to being methamphetamine users who allegedly stole the cows to feed their habit.

Jimmy Dean Siler is one of four investigators with the Wyoming Livestock Board tasked with looking into allegations of cattle rustling. He said that while such reports are still rare here, they have been on the rise of late.

“We might get one or two reports of one cow missing a year,” Siler said. “Since the beginning of the year, I’d say we’ve had five reports. That may not sound like a lot, but to us that’s significant.”

Given the nature of the cattle business, Siler said it’s not unusual for a cow to go missing after spending time out in the pastures, only to be found later. Likewise, rustlers will frequently take just one or two cows at a time – frequently newborn, unbranded calves – making the theft harder to detect, especially in larger herds.

“Usually, the ranchers will write those off as predators or winter kill or something like that,” Siler said. “What we’re trying to do is get the education out there that if you’re missing just one or two calves, and if you can’t find any remains … we’re trying to get them to at least report it so we can get some numbers together.”

Even those cattle that are branded may be stolen and then sold in one of the states that don’t maintain a similar system of brand recognition. For that reason, Siler said, the most vulnerable ranches are those that border other states.

“It’s a lot simpler to steal from Laramie County and drive into Colorado than it would be if you’re going to steal from Riverton,” he said. “And by the time they notice and file a report with us, quite a few months have gone by and it’s become a cold case.”

Given that most of those stolen cattle usually end up on someone’s dinner plate, it can be difficult to track down any individual theft once the trail has gone cold. Compounding that problem is the fact that Wyoming has only four investigators covering the entire state, and theft is only one of the many crimes they look into.

“You get one theft and you could spend weeks investigating that theft case,” Siler said. “And you can average over 100 cases a year between brand violations, health violations, quarantine violations.”

That said, Wyoming does have some laws in place meant to aid livestock criminal investigators. For example, Siler said, any livestock hauler traveling through the state can be stopped at any time and asked to produce brand paperwork.

“If you’re driving around in Laramie County, I could stop you and just check where you’re headed with the livestock,” he said. “And if you can’t produce the ownership, then that’s a pretty good indication that you’re not the legal owner.”

Cattle rustling remains the only livestock-related offense in Wyoming that is classified as a felony. It carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison, and Siler said that, in his experience, judges tend not to handle such offenses lightly.

“I’ve seen drug dealers not get as good a sentence as we would on a rustler,” he said. “But if you ask any local, it (should be) hanging.”

As for how ranchers can better protect themselves from cattle theft, Siler said the Livestock Board urges ranchers to establish a good working relationship with their neighbors and to be careful about whom they hire as ranch hands – especially when cattle start going missing.

“The last person we arrested was working for a fairly large company, and when they went to church on Sunday, he’d take a few cattle and run them down to his hometown just across the state line, using their trucks and trailers,” Siler said. “We tell everybody if you’re starting to miss livestock, try to think how the criminal does; if you were going to steal something, try to think how you’d do it. And try to notify us as soon as possible.”

Any rancher who does suspect their cattle has been stolen is encouraged to report the crime to the Wyoming Highway Patrol, which handles initial calls for the Livestock Board’s law enforcement unit. That number is 800-442-9090.

Published on: Thursday, Jun 12, 2014 – 11:11:38 pm MDT

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