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Gone to rustlers, every one

By Staff | Jan 8, 2010

A lonely cow stands on a remote piece of the Roaring Springs Ranch near Frenchglen, Ore. The remoteness of the high desert where Oregon, Idaho and Nevada come together has proved a boon to rustlers who have made off with some 1,200 cattle in recent years. Authorities believe it is the work of a small group of top hands who know cattle, the country, and the ways of local ranchers.

FRENCHGLEN, Ore. (AP) – Cruising down a two-lane blacktop where the Catlow Rim drops down into a broad valley of sagebrush and bunchgrass, ranch manager Stacy Davies pulls his pickup over to let pass a herd of young bulls being trailed along the road by a couple of his buckaroos, as ranch hands are called here.

Arriving at the corrals at Three Mile Creek, Davies opens the tailgate on the gooseneck trailer hitched to his pickup, leads his horse into the cold hard sunshine, and swings up into the saddle to cut out cattle destined for shipment to market.

Two springs ago, Davies pulled up to these same corrals to find that dozens of weaned calves were gone, rustled, with truck tracks half-stomped by the remaining cattle the only clue to what had happened.

Out of pride and a reluctance to point a finger at neighbors, ranchers in the vast Great Basin outback where Oregon, Idaho and Nevada come together have been slow to admit that someone in their midst, perhaps even someone they know from barbecues and brandings, has been stealing cattle. Just who is doing it, and how they have gotten away with it for at least three years, remains a mystery.

”There’s a lot of men who have worked these various ranches, moved from ranch to ranch and know this country well, who would be capable of such activity,” said Davies, manager of Roaring Springs Ranch, which covers 1.1 million acres of private and federal range. ”They know when we are at ballgames, they know when we’re at church. They know where the animals are at.”

Last summer, pushed by Jordan Valley rancher Bob Skinner, a past president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, ranchers overcame their reluctance to talk and started sharing information with law enforcement and each other. It quickly became clear that more than 1,200 cattle worth about $1 million had disappeared, far more than could be accounted for by the bones that dot this harsh country, or strays joining a neighbor’s herd.

That would make this the rustling hotspot of the nation, said Rick Wahlert, Colorado state brand commissioner and secretary of the International Livestock Identification Association. The group’s members in 20 states and three Canadian provinces have reported about 500 cattle thefts a year the past two years, up from 150 a year.

The association believes the jump in rustling is apparently spurred by the hard economic times, he said.

Rancher Skinner urged an aggressive new attitude among his far-flung neighbors, and he organized regular meetings to raise the profile on rustling. Once the cattlemen began admitting their losses, the numbers snowballed. The county sheriffs realized for the first time they had a major problem.

”Cattle theft – rustling – is not just something you read about in old Western magazines or watch in the Western movies you see,” said Ed Kilgore, sheriff of Nevada’s Humboldt County. ”I really believe it’s going on with people riding horses like in the old days, gathering cattle and taking them to a place they can load them up on transport.”

With cows worth as much as $1,200 apiece, and calves $650, the losses mounted quickly, Skinner said. Despite struggling with their losses and the recession, ranchers have kicked in close to $60,000 in reward money to back a wanted poster circulating with the brands of stolen cattle.

Ranchers are keeping closer watch on their cattle, even with hidden cameras, and taking counts every time a herd moves through a gate, so they can report a theft sooner.

”The worst thing we can do is just to not say anything and hope they show up, then four or five or who knows how many months later go, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m missing a bunch,’ and by then there’s no more smoking trail,” Skinner said.

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