HASTINGS, Neb. — While higher cattle prices may make ag producers more aware of thieves, authorities don’t believe it will result in more theft.
Cattle rustling has always been a problem in Nebraska, as Wild West images of rowdy rustlers and hangings come to mind. Today, ranchers rely on brand inspectors and county sheriff’s deputies to keep their herds safe.
Most of the enforcement of cattle thefts falls to the Nebraska Brand Committee, which has 44 full-time brand inspectors, 48 seasonal inspectors and four criminal investigators.
While it is impossible to determine how many cattle are stolen annually, Brand Committee investigators recovered 1,276 head in fiscal year 2013. The recovered cattle were worth an estimated $1.322 million.
So far, from July 2013 to February 2014, the Brand Committee has recovered 862 head; however, just 664 head of cattle were reported missing during the same period. The recovered cattle were worth an estimated $2.648 million.
So while the loss in dollars is higher, it isn’t because of more theft.
“According to our records, reports of cattle theft has been pretty consistent over the last few years,” said Steve Stanec, executive director of the Brand Committee, which is headquartered in Alliance. “We haven’t seen any major increases in the number of reports.”
Adams County Sheriff Gregg Magee said his office has only handled one cattle theft case this year and three head are missing.
“We are not aware of an increase in our locality. The potential is there because of the increases in prices that the cattle are going for,” Magee said.
He said his office investigates an average of three cattle theft cases annually.
“It’s not uncommon that we receive reports of missing cattle,” he said.
Ronna Morse, manager of the Sandhills Cattle Association in Valentine, said she doesn’t think that cattle theft numbers are on the rise but that higher priced cattle do make a tempting target.
“I haven’t had anyone telling me that they have lost cattle so far,” she said. “They are very valuable and we are just going to pasture. It is always a concern when we go to pasture because the cattle are out roaming. If people are so inclined to do something like this, it tends to happen in the summertime. We are entering into that time period right now.”
Stanec said he has seen the numbers of stolen cattle fluctuate in the past regardless of market prices.
“We have found that those involved in stealing cattle are opportunists. They’re going to do it no matter what the market is,” Stanec said. “I don’t see that the price of the animals is relative with the reports of stolen cattle. When cattle prices are high, the impact of having one animal stolen certainly impacts their bottom line. In years when the prices aren’t as good as they have been recently, then it doesn’t have such a great impact.”
Only the western two-thirds of Nebraska is a brand inspection area, where cattle must be inspected if they are sold. Inspections are not required in the eastern part of the state, including Adams County.
“Those who reside inside of the brand area have some kind of confidence that they are being protected through that brand inspection. It serves as a deterrent for anyone who may try to steal cattle. Whenever those cattle are moved, shipped, sold or taken out of the state, a brand inspection is required,” Stanec said.
He added that getting rid of stolen cattle is not necessarily difficult in areas outside of the brand inspection area.
“You can try to sell them just like you would any other commodity,” Stanec said. “Inside the brand inspection area, they must be brand inspected for ownership prior to that sale. There’s a third party there verifying that the person selling the cattle is the owner. In a non-brand inspection area that transaction can take place with no questions asked.”
The investigation of cattle thefts inside the brand inspection area falls to the Brand Committee, which has four divisions: administration, brand recording, criminal investigation and brand inspection.
Five criminal investigators make up the law enforcement branch of the committee. They hold the rank of deputy state sheriffs, who have the duty and responsibility to investigate livestock theft and associated crimes, according to Stanec.
The investigators are legislatively under the same statutes as the Nebraska State Patrol and drug enforcement agents. They are located in Mitchell, Alma and Broken Bow.
“They have statewide juris-diction and they are scattered among the brand inspection area,” said Stanec, who is the committee’s chief investigator as well as the division’s executive director. While committee officers try to reunite stray cattle with their owners in branded areas, sometimes it isn’t possible and those animals are sold at the nearest auction.
“If it is unbranded and no one in the vicinity claims it or reports an animal of that description missing, it is considered a stray and is sold as soon as possible. That money is turned over to our investigators to try and determine ownership. If they cannot determine ownership or no one steps forward within a one-year time frame, then that money is earmarked to go to the state school fund,” Stanec said.
One problem the committee experiences is the lack of producers reporting missing cattle.
“We encourage anyone, when they first determine they are missing livestock, to report it — not only to our agency but to the local sheriff. They can always cancel that report,” he said. “Oftentimes they don’t report it for days, weeks or even a month later. Then it is too late to get in there and find some evidence that the animals were stolen. As soon as they determine that they are missing livestock, they need to report it.”