Investigators say cattle disappearances not always clear

Farm Forum

SHERIDAN, Wyo. — The ad in the paper is a plea for help. An offer is made — $20,000 for information about 24 cows branded “D — D” and 28 calves stolen from Sheridan, Wyo., last year. Cattle rustling is not a thing of the past.

The missing cattle wear a brand owned by William J. Doenz of Sheridan who manages the D Bar D Ranch. The cattle were grazing when they disappeared in August 2013.

Livestock investigator Casey Cunningham was limited in what he could say about the case other than it was open and under investigation.

Investigating cattle disappearances is not always a cut-and-dried job, Cunningham said.

“Sometimes we won’t get a report until a month after the fact,” he said. “And then we tend to have to go on speculation. We need good evidence.”

Cunningham said reasons for cattle disappearances can vary from predator attacks to cattle wandering off on open range. Reports run the gamut from simple missing reports to outright accusations.

“We’ll have people accusing other people of stealing cattle just because they don’t like them,” Cunningham said. “We have to look at all the facts and make sure we’re actually dealing with stolen cattle.”

While some reports indicate that cattle rustling in Wyoming is on the rise, Cunningham said he thinks it’s about where it usually is.

Doug Miyamoto, director of the Wyoming Livestock Board, said he thinks it’s somewhere in the middle.

“It’s a tough question,” Miyamoto said. “But if you take a hard look at it, (rustling) is up a little, but not significantly.”

While industry production is at a 20-year low, retail prices are at an all-time high. According to the USDA, a feeder cow that sold for just under $170 per hundredweight last year will now fetch about $230, making the price about $1,700 per head last year and about $2,300 per head this year. That means the cows and calves missing from Sheridan potentially represent about a $120,000 loss.

Miyamoto said there is a register for missing cattle similar to a missing persons register, but hard statistics are almost impossible.

“About 40 percent of Wyoming is federal land,” Miyamoto said. “Much of that is BLM land, and it’s available for grazing. Cattle can disappear on open range and then show up a year later after they’ve been reported missing. That’s going to alter the statistics some.”

Carl Clements, a district supervisor with the Wyoming Highway Patrol, said it wasn’t unusual for ranchers to not see cattle for weeks, which tends to delay reports of stolen cattle.

The Highway Patrol handles initial calls reporting livestock theft.

“Most ranchers only see their cattle every day in the winter,” Clements said. “If they’re grazing cattle on leased land with a good fence and plenty of grass and water, it can be weeks before they see the cattle again. If the cattle are on open range, it can be even longer.”

Cunningham said the lag time between when cattle actually go missing and when they’re reported makes investigating difficult.

“By the time we hear about it, any evidence we need is gone,” he said.

Cattle trucks in Wyoming can be stopped at any time for a brand inspection, Clements said, and shipping papers are checked at ports of entry throughout the state.

But Cunningham said cattle traveling in horse trailers are a little harder to keep track of, and cattle that make it over the Missouri River are even harder to trace.

“There’s no inspection that far east,” he said. “Out-of-state buyers are supposed to check brands, but that doesn’t mean they’ll do it.”