LANDER — When Todd Heward brought his sheep in to dock, when the animals’ tails are clipped, this past June, he noticed something troubling. He’d lost 65 ewes from when he sheared the sheep in the first week of May.
For the past three years, Heward had noticed fewer animals returning from his pastures in Shirley Basin than he started with earlier in the season. The differences were too high to attribute to illness, predators or wandering animals. After talking with neighboring ranchers and scouring his property for carcasses or signs of death, Heward concluded the sheep had been stolen.
Heward’s not the only Wyoming rancher to report an increase in livestock rustling, or stealing, in recent years. As the value of livestock increases, so do the number of thefts, ranchers and law enforcement officials say.
Earlier this month, ranchers from Carbon, Converse, Natrona and Albany counties met with law enforcement officials, the state brand inspector, investigators and public land managers to find solutions to a problem as old as Western cowboy mystique, but with a modern twist.
It’s impossible to know the exact number of animals stolen from ranches in Wyoming each year, because so many people don’t report missing livestock at first, said Jimmy Siler, law enforcement administrator with the Wyoming Livestock Board.
From Jan. 1, 2006, to Nov. 18 of this year, 230 cases of livestock theft were reported, an average of 55 cases each year, Siler said. This year is shaping to at least meet the average, he noted.
However, the reported numbers don’t always fully represent what is happening in the state, Siler said.
When animals first go missing, ranchers search neighboring land looking for lost livestock or signs of death or predators. Once ranchers decide the animals were stolen, they often don’t report the thefts, thinking nothing can be done.
Like Heward, who had not reported his stolen sheep, ranchers often wait to see a pattern for several years before filing a report.
At this month’s meeting, Siler taught ranchers how to easily file reports on missing livestock, which will allow the state to compile better records of where theft is most commonly occurring. Animals are most often stolen from ranches near state border lines, Siler said. Some states, such as Kansas, don’t have brand laws, so if thieves can move the animals into those states, they can easily sell them on the market, Siler said. Brand laws in Nebraska and South Dakota are lax.
“There’s a lot of deception that goes with it, but it is a fairly easy theft nowadays,” Siler said.
In the Old West days, stealing livestock was harder. Rustlers needed horses and other people to help round up the animals. They needed routes where they wouldn’t be seen driving cattle or sheep across the range. Today, a truck with a trailer can pull off to the side of the road, open the gate and fill the bed with a few animals and continue down the road, Siler said. Even if they are spotted, people don’t think it’s anything unusual.
Money to be made
Rustling has developed into a lucrative venture.
“The price of livestock is phenomenal compared to back what it was in the early 1900s,” Siler said.
Michael Spenrath’s calves usually weigh about 600 pounds in early May. By the end of September, when it’s time to sell the yearling steers, they hopefully have grown to 850 pounds. This year, Spenrath noticed 22 yearlings were missing. The market value for yearling steers was $1.34 a pound, meaning Spenrath lost more than $20,000.
Spenrath started ranching in the Shirley Basin area in the 1980s with his father. Every year, a few steers wander off and it can take several weeks to find the animals in other pastures — and a handful always die. But since 2008, he’s noticed a few animals missing without signs of predators or death in the area — usually at least pieces of carcasses are found. The past few years, it’s been about 12 unaccounted-for yearling calves. This year was unprecedented. He also lost 35 sheep.
With the large numbers the ranchers run — Spenrath has about 1,500 yearling calves and 500 to 1,500 sheep on 50,000 acres spread over multiple lots — many don’t realize animals are missing until shipping season.
“We can’t be everywhere and see everything,” Spenrath said.
Catching rustlers is hard, Siler said. On average, only one person a year is arrested.
“It takes a while to establish that the predator is the two-legged kind,” Siler said.
Once a rancher reports a theft, there are no tracks, eyewitnesses or even suspects.
“These cases are always cold cases,” Siler said.
Thieves are most often caught by random stops by brand inspectors. In Wyoming, brand inspectors and law enforcement officers can pull over any vehicle believed to be transporting animals and ask for proof of ownership, Siler said.
Stealing livestock, even just one small animal, is a felony which carries a fine of up to $10,000 and up to 10 years in jail.
“In the old days it was a hanging [offense],” Siler said.
Sheep are easier to steal than cattle because they are paint-branded and can be sheared, and to most people all sheep look alike. They too have increased in price and thefts in recent years, Siler said.
Heward estimated the market value of his stolen sheep this year was between $100 and $150 apiece.
Despite the challenges, thieves are sometimes caught.
Last year, two rustlers were nabbed in Crook County for stealing sheep, Siler said. Inspectors used DNA to establish the animals’ ownership and the rancher was paid restitution, Siler said.
About six months later, inspectors used DNA to establish sheep sold in South Dakota were stolen from a Wyoming ranch, Siler said.
The state will increase brand inspection and surveillance in areas hit with rustling, Siler said.
Meanwhile, law enforcement will perform more random stops on vehicles carrying animals, Converse County Sheriff Clint Becker said. They also will encourage people to report unusual behavior and write down license plate numbers of unfamiliar trucks and trailers, he said.
The challenge is the vast terrain. Livestock often graze in areas in the middle of nowhere and there isn’t much security, Becker said.
Carbon County Sheriff Jerry Colson hadn’t heard of most of the thefts discussed at the livestock meeting because they hadn’t been reported. He wasn’t aware of how big an issue rustling had become in the area, he said.
Colson encouraged ranchers to file reports so his department would be aware of activities. This winter, Colson also plans to work with the Wyoming Livestock Board to provide additional training for his staff, specific to livestock theft.