Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cattle Counts Coming In Short

Cattle Rustling Makes a Comeback

WEISER - In Washington County, Chief Deputy Earl Nelson mans the frontlines in a crime spree sweeping the West – cattle rustling.

Every night Washington County deputies keep their eyes peeled for suspicious goose-neck trailers, semi-trucks and four wheelers. The cattle rustling season is in full swing as ranchers drive cattle from the summer to fall range.

“We’ll drive up to Cuddy or West Mountain and if there’s a suspicious looking truck and trailer parked there, we’ll ask them what they’re up to,” said Nelson, a 26-year veteran of the Washington County Sheriff’s office.

Just up the road in Council, the Idaho State Police are investigating the disappearance of 220 head of cattle. At current market prices that’s close to a quarter-of-a million dollar loss and the law says it’s the lure of easy money that’s bringing rustling back.

“It’s definitely the economy.” said Idaho State Police Brand inspector Larry Hayhurst. “Why rob a 7-11 for a couple hundred bucks when you can rustle a couple of cows for a quick $1,500?”

The ISP receives between 300 and 500 reports of lost or missing cattle each year. “I don’t think we’re seeing all the cattle that are missing,” said Hayhurst. “They turn out cattle in the spring and don’t know what they’re missing until November.” Hayhurst thinks those the numbers could double or triple when the summer range cattle come
in. “Because times are tough; people are watching their numbers a lot closer.”

Hayhurst points out that cattle thieves aren’t limiting themselves to the range. In Twin Falls County farmers are coming-up short on feedlots and dairies. Thieves are working in broad daylight and according to the ISP most thieves work alone or in small teams rather than as part of organized crime syndicates.

Rustlers are loading the cattle onto trailers and take them straight from ranches and farms to the auction, Hayhurst said. On the auction block, each cow is worth about $700 and cattle hold their value. Smart rustlers look for calves and unmarked cattle because the animals are untraceable.

Idaho ranchers aren’t required to brand their cattle, but most do especially on the range. The rustling trend is even a bigger problem in Texas. More than 6,400 head were rustled last year according to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and that number is on the rise in 2009. The situation is so serious that the Texas legislature passed a bill last May raising the maximum penalty for livestock theft from two to 10 years in prison.

The theft of cattle is just part of a growing agricultural crime wave in Idaho. Last year it was copper wire and tool sheds, and this year its cattle. Deputies say it’s because the chance of getting caught are slim. But the ISP says they’re making progress in them auction yards.

“On questionable ownership of cattle, we hold $3 million dollars in market value cattle on questionable ownership, 80-percent check out, but for the rest: there’s something wrong,” Hayhurst said. Modern day rustlers are sophisticated and technologically savvy. They know the law and how much jail time they’ll get. They have trucks, trailers, computers and GPS. They’re mission is to get the cattle to market as fast as they can, get a check and
disappear. This past spring the Washington and Adams county sheriff’s offices held a public meeting in Cambridge to address the problem.

They urged cattlemen and residents to be more aware of strangers, to take down license plate numbers and to keep track of people visiting the area on specific days. “We want to know who’s on the range and why they’re there,” said Nelson. “We passed out vehicle stickers to everybody, so trail-head visitors on Cuddy, Council and West Mountain know they’re being checked.

Ranchers in turn send that information to the brand inspectors. If we have missingcattle from an area, we have license plate numbers and the day they were in the area. It’s too early to tell how it’s working,but it’s a first step to get a handle on some of this crime.”

Cattle thieves were lynched in Idaho up until the turn of the century. Those days are gone, but the sentiment lives on for today’s ranchers and dairy operators who feel violated and endure the stinging losses – losses that can break a family business.

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