Today’s cattle rustlers usually aren’t as bold as the gun-slingers of the Old West; you can’t hang them from the nearest tree, either. In fact, Rodger Huffman, Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) livestock inspection and predator control programs manager, says few cattle thieves these days ever stand trial.

“More often than not, the victims know the people stealing from them – relatives, neighbors or hired help; they are typically not random thefts,” he says. “Victims almost always say they don’t want to prosecute, they just want their livestock back.”

A common way for cattle rustling to occur, Huffman says, is when cows stray onto a neighbor’s property and the neighbor holds the animal and raises calves from her. Many times, the cows “mysteriously” return to the owner a couple of years later.

Absentee ranch owners are also at risk for cattle theft.

“Sometimes, we’ll find that a ranch manager doesn’t brand a certain percentage of the calves and claims them as death loss to the owners. In fact, the manager is peeling off those young calves, and selling or trading them,” he says.

Stolen cows are usually used for breeding purposes or hamburger, but Huffman says stolen calves are typically sold via Internet cattle auctions or classified ad websites like Craigslist. They’re also sold directly to feedlots, as most feedlots don’t require brand inspections until the cattle leave the feedyard.

The best defense

Branding, Huffman says, remains the best defense against livestock theft. He reports that 83% of Oregon producers brand calves – down slightly from 90% in years past. Hot-iron branding, although not mandatory in Oregon, is permanent. Other methods currently available for marking cattle are alterable or removable.

As a result of brand inspections, in 2010, 846 animals were impounded at Oregon livestock auctions until ownership could be proven.

“Some never can prove ownership, and end up as theft investigations,” Huffman says. “In most cases, the people trying to sell them probably should have known they were in with their herd; in fact, they probably did, but when we do the brand inspections and identify them, the typical response is ‘oh, I didn’t know that was there.’ If we were to classify situations where we think they should have known better – it’s in the hundreds.”

As far as out-and-out cattle nabbing from properties, Huffman says it happens, but not as often. In this situation, most producers won’t even realize the theft has taken place until the cattle are gathered from open range.

That was the case for Skinner Ranches in Oregon’s Malheur County. Operating on nearly 10,000 square miles of open range, of which 72% is public land, Bob Skinner says they operate in the most remote area of the lower 48 states. The Skinners graze cattle on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ground stretching from eastern Oregon’s Jordan Valley to the Nevada state line.

About two years ago, Skinner says he came up short 200 head when he pulled his Double S brand cattle off the open range, far more than normal death loss would account for. He soon discovered that many of his neighbors also had large numbers unaccounted for.

“Cattle are big animals, they don’t evaporate overnight,” he says. “Carcasses of dead animals will stay in the area for a long time. We searched by airplane, local deputies searched, no one could find any sign of them. It was a serious problem. We got together with other ranchers and decided to do something.”