Tuesday October 26 2010
It's not just in the movies. It's happening here, now.
The range corner of "ION" - where Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada come together, is the "cattle rustling hotspot" of the US. Last summer over 1200 cattle, worth around $1 million disappeared from this area. Over 500 were reported missing in Owyhee County alone last year.
Some of the missing cattle could be due to Mother Nature, seeing as most cattle are run during the summer on BLM and Forest Service land and not seen for months at a time. But there's no question there's rustling going on, when a cow can bring $800-1500 a head at auction. Losses for ranchers can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It can break the small rancher. And cowboys and ranches who take their cattle up into the high country in the spring often don't know how many they've lost until they round them up in the fall.
Conviction for livestock theft can result in prison time... but convictions are rare and catching the thieves is even more infrequent.
Think about it: it might be easy (though cows are not 'easy' to deal with, period) to snatch a cow or two, but a herd? It would take a bit of planning, and it would take people who know the land, people who know horses and how to handle cows. People who live the life of outdoors, horses and cows.
It would take a truck and trailer for the horses, truck and trailer(s) for the cattle. It would take planning on the routes to take, the fences to follow, the gates to go through, the roads to avoid, the ranches to skirt, the holding pens to hold the cattle and places to load up. That's on a quick one-day drive. Sometimes the cattle are driven across several states before they are loaded up. That would take more sophisticated planning: human food (stashes along the way?), places to sleep, much more land to know, many more fences and gates to know, more people and ranches and roads to avoid.
Branding helps, but feedlots and slaughter houses and auctions often don't check brands. When cattle change hands by selling, often the new brand is added. A cow may have multiple brands. Which is the latest? Sometimes the brands are difficult to see under long hair. Sometimes the brands might have been altered.
Twelve states in the West employ brand inspectors, but the country is vast and the human resources limited. If you get out in this country, ride up one of the myriad drainages, and you realize how difficult it would be to find a small herd of cows or a couple of rustlers. We lost a horse in this country on a ride one winter, and it took 6 days to find him, and we even had a rough idea of where he was. And if you did meet some rustlers, how would you know they weren't just cowboys employed to round up the cows?
It's not the old Wild West anymore where convicted cattle thieves are lynched... but it is still the old Wild West where cattle are still rustled by cowboys.