Cattle rustling isn’t a crime relegated to the Old West and the movies, it still happens in Wyoming, and livestock officials say it’s a crime that’s hard to solve.
Nearly 4,000 head of livestock were reported missing in Wyoming between 2017 and 2022, according to the latest figures available from the Wyoming Livestock Board.
Some of those animals could have been recovered with no report filed, and some could still be roaming free in Wyoming's vast rangelands. But many of them were likely stolen.
Livestock rustling is often thought of as a thing of the past, and is difficult to prove in many cases because once an animal is sent to slaughter the evidence has vanished. It's tough to pin the crime on a thief when all that's left to show is a marbled ribeye in a grocery store meat case.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that some states that border Wyoming don't require brand inspection or other owner identity markings. A thief with a load of steers can sell them without proving that he owns them first.
In Wyoming there are three triggers that set the requirements for brand inspection in motion. They include when livestock are moved across state lines, county lines or at the point of sale. An inspection requires the owner of said livestock to prove ownership. Animal health inspections can also trigger a brand inspection.
Steve True, director of the Wyoming Livestock Board, told Cowboy State Daily he has two full-time livestock investigators on his staff and 96 brand inspectors across the state. The investigators work with sheriff's departments in every Wyoming county on livestock theft cases.
Wyoming Livestock Board employees inspect an average of 1.7 million head of cattle each year and between 200,000 and 300,000 sheep.
True said his office receives between 50 and 65 new reports of missing livestock each year.
One of those cases happened July 10, when 70 yearling ewes were reported missing from Guy Edwards' ranch in Campbell County. Edwards told Cowboy State Daily he found tire tracks and other evidence indicating the sheep were loaded into a trailer and hauled off.
"Regulations in the neighboring states have varied over time," True said. "Nebraska and South Dakota are partial brand states. Some states require inspection at livestock markets and some don't. There are about a dozen states that require brand inspection."
Only Wyoming and New Mexico require brand inspection for sheep.
"Probably our biggest challenge is timing," True said. "In most livestock cases, by the time the owner pokes around looking for them, it basically becomes a cold case by the time we or the county sheriff's deputies get to it."
Kill On The Spot
Sometimes livestock thieves will kill an animal, butcher it on the spot and haul the meat away.
This happened in early July in Sweetwater County. A red angus calf was killed and the perpetrators took the animal's front and rear quarters, backstraps and tenderloins and dumped the rest of the carcass. They also cut off the calf's left ear, apparently to hide any evidence of an ear tag.
True said this type of livestock theft isn't frequent but it happens nearly every year in Wyoming and it's difficult for investigators to solve.
"It doesn't get reported until somebody comes across a carcass that's been butchered and Wyoming is big enough and unpopulated enough that nobody knows about it until a hide or some feet are found in a ditch somewhere," True said.
Arrests in livestock theft cases are infrequent but True pointed out a case that occurred in October 2020 when Scott Eric Smith was arrested in Indian River County, Florida, on a warrant out of Albany County, Wyoming.
Smith was charged with 31 felonies related to livestock theft, theft of property and numerous other crimes in both Florida and Wyoming. Smith was also wanted in California and has not yet been extradited to Wyoming to stand trial for the crimes he allegedly committed here
Keep Good Records
True advises livestock producers to keep good records and regular eyes on their stock. When livestock prices go up, rustling seems to follow suit.
"Livestock markets are up right now but it's also a vulnerable economy," True said. "Producers need to be careful with their product, keep good documentation and accurate counts. They need to make themselves visible and not be too set in their routines."
True added that livestock owners shouldn't show up to check stock at the same time every day. Thieves could be watching and looking for predictable patterns.
Livestock theft can also trend up during a down economy and periods of high unemployment, he said.
"Livestock is a living, breathing commodity that can be traded and then eaten," he said. "It has a cash value that when someone markets it, it's often dollar for dollar as opposed to when say a television gets stolen and the thief only gets 10 cents on the dollar."
Wyoming Stock Growers Executive Vice President Jim Magagna said livestock prices are up and that makes thieves more willing to take risks.
"Not every report of missing livestock means they were stolen," he said. "Lots can happen, they run off cliffs or get mixed with the neighbor's herd. But I think when prices are up it's simply more rewarding to take risks. And right now cattle prices are close to record highs."
Magagna added that he expects to see an uptick in livestock theft later this fall if markets remain strong.
According to Wyoming Livestock Board, statistics related to missing livestock reports between 2017 and 2022 are as follows:
Total reports of missing livestock: 259
Reported missing cattle: 1,976 total head
Reported missing sheep: 1,690 total head
Reported missing horses: 31 total including three mules and one miniature donkey
Reported missing goats: 10 total
John Thompson can be reached at: John@CowboyStateDaily.com