Legislative committee targets cattle rustling as topic during interim
Riverton – Ranchers across Wyoming have cited concerns with cattle rustling over the past several years, and this year, the issue came to a head as the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee meeting.
In a follow-up from the meeting, the Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB) also addressed the topic during their May 27 meeting, noting that the issues related to rustling, particularly in dealing with the Wind River Reservation, should be dealt with and options to work together should be explored.
Looking into livestock theft
“Generally, our enforcement officers classify rustling and missing livestock together,” WLSB Director Steve True explained. “Most reports are classified as ‘missing’ originally.”
He continued, “If a suspect can be identified, it will switch to rustling.”
In 2004, 58 cases of missing livestock were identified. That number dropped to 52 cases in 2014, but True mentioned that they typically see between 50 and 60 cases of livestock theft reported each year.
Senator Leland Christensen of Teton County mentioned, “If we had 52 cases of livestock theft in 2014, that is one per week. With the price of cattle today, that means potentially millions of dollars.”
While the WLSB readily had the number of cases of livestock theft in the state readily available, Christensen asked, “If we had 52 cases, how many head of cattle does that include?”
True noted that to gather that information, a hand search would have to be conducted to determine a count of the numbers.
However, several committee members were unsatisfied with a lack of numbers and requested that True research the number of animals reported missing, as well as the number of cases of missing livestock or livestock that have been solved in the last five years.
When a report of livestock theft comes in, True explained that it is not uncommon that the report is made three or four months after the event.
“We turn cows out in May and gather them in September,” he said. “I might not know that I’m missing 30 head until then. There is a tough solve rate with an event like that.”
True continued, “This is also a commodity that is alive and profitable.”
The result is that it is often difficult to trace down where cattle went, particularly if they have been sold or slaughtered.
“The potential for cattle theft is out there because the dollar value of cattle,” True said. “With four enforcement officers, the best thing we have is our presence through our roadside checks. Then the public knows we are out and looking.”
He also noted that collaboration with other agencies is and will continue to be important in addressing theft cases.
On the reservation
In addition, members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes on the Wind River Reservation have expressed concern with rustling.
“I have attended trainings with our law enforcement officers and Fremont County Sheriff’s Department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Wind River Police Department and several others,” True noted. “I was duly impressed with the collaboration between these groups and the openness and understanding of the jurisdictional hurdles they face – whether it be on deeded land, fee land, reservation land or public land.”
Darwin St. Clair, chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe Business Council, also attended the legislative committee meeting, mentioning, “There are numerous examples of livestock being stolen. One rancher lost 90 head of mother cows, and another lost 90-plus calves in one year.”
He noted that both the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes request that a joint compact of some form be developed to work together to solve the challenges of livestock theft on the reservation.
“We do know that our producers are losing large parts of their herds,” St. Clair added, “and we believe there are ways we can work together and collaborate to make things better for everyone.”
As one possibility, St. Clair mentioned that assessment fees taken from the reservation could be utilized to hire an additional brand inspector or enforcement officer to specifically deal with herds and producers on the Wind River Reservation.
He also noted that other options may be feasible, as well.
One hurdle in working with the Wind River Reservation is the jurisdictional challenges that accompany the effort. Determining who has jurisdiction has proved to be challenging.
“Wyoming brand authorities claim they have no jurisdiction,” St. Clair said. “All livestock producers are assessed the same fees, and our producers feel they are not being represented.”
One cattle producer from the Wind River Reservation noted, “I have to have a state brand inspection on my cattle on the reservation, but when I turn to them about cattle that are stolen, they say they have no jurisdiction. It is frustrating.”
“The jurisdictional hurdles are immense,” agreed True, noting that understanding who has what authority will be an important step in working together to address cattle theft.
With challenges for both sides, the Joint Ag Committee agreed that some efforts to work together should be looked at moving forward.
Representative Jim Allen of Lander said, “I’d really like to see us all sit down together and talk about the challenges and the authorities that we have and don’t have. Before we can solve this, we really need to sit down and hammer out what points we need to look at to achieve protection of private property.”
True noted that he will be attending a meeting in early June with both tribes to discuss the challenges related to addressing issues on the Wind River Reservation by exploring the possibility of an agreement.
“There will be interaction between tribal groups, committee representatives and others forthcoming,” True said. “There will be jurisdictional hurdles to jump and authorities to delegate, but I think there are great possibilities.”
“The discussions during the Joint Ag Committee meeting were lively and positive,” True told the WLSB on May 27. “The committee seems to be proactive and interested in these discussions.”
Board members agreed that their presence would be important at future meetings between the tribes and the WLSB, also noting that it would be wise to proceed with caution to make sure all legal challenges are addressed.
“With the data we have, I wonder what we can do as the Legislature to make sure that Wyoming isn’t a rustler-friendly state,” Christensen said.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.