It may not be the world’s oldest profession, but cattle rustling may be a close second — and producers say it’s on the rise. So much so, the Western Stock Growers’ Association (WSGA) is now offering a $50,000 reward for tips leading to the capture of cattle thieves.
“We’ve always had up to a $1,000 reward fund for information leading to a cattle theft conviction from a WSGA member and it’s now a $50,000 reward for it,” said WSGA president Phil Rowland.
Cattle prices are significantly higher right now than they were just a couple of years ago and the payoff could make it difficult for thieves to resist temptation. “It’s a proactive response to an ongoing issue. What we’re trying to do is put a good tool in the tool box of the livestock RCMP investigators. We’re hoping it’s a bat, and we’re hoping it hits a home run,” said Rowland.
Corporal Chris Reister hopes so too. Reister is one of two RCMP livestock investigators in Alberta, and while he says cattle theft numbers aren’t officially up right now, producers may simply not be reporting every incident.
“The reason why they don’t report is a lot of times, it’s months after the fact if they have such a large herd in such a geographical area where they can’t count them on a regular basis throughout the summer, they don’t know that they’ve maybe experienced losses until fall when they wean their calves or preg check,” he said.
Reister says approximately 580 cattle are stolen annually from Alberta. Many of the thefts are considered internal, such as financed cattle being sold while there is still a security interest on the animals, but traditional rustling is also a problem.
One hot spot of activity is in the southeastern corner of the province. Aaron Brower, vice-president of the WSGA, ranches south of Medicine Hat and is estimated to have lost nearly $500,000 in cattle to theft in recent years. In 2011, he lost 44 head. “They got them between January and August, and they got them twice,” said Brower, adding all his cattle are branded. “There were 14 between December and March and 30 from the end of April until the first of August.”
There are measures producers can enact to discourage thieves and reduce losses.
“Brand your cattle. We have very little success in recovering unbranded cattle. One of the elements of theft is proving colour of right and proving ownership and if you don’t have a brand or a tattoo or a tag, it’s very difficult to do that,” said Reister.
Tags can be removed and replaced, and brand inspectors cannot take the time to inspect each animal for a tattoo, which is the identification method used by many in the purebred industry. To check an animal for a tattoo, it has to be segregated into a chute, and it has to be cleaned up to look for the small marking. Additionally, some tattoos have a tendency to become less legible over time.
“Purbred cattle are stolen the same as commercial cattle. Fifty per cent of people brand in the province and when you consider the millions of head that we have in Alberta, it makes them a very easy target. Not that branded cattle can’t be stolen and moved, but it just makes it that much more difficult,” Reister said.
There are nearly 100 brand inspectors working in the province, but they have several million head to inspect over the course of a year. Cattle with well-placed brands can be read quickly and efficiently and while brands can be altered, the fresh marks belie their newness and are easily spotted by the brand inspectors. “There are thieves who aren’t interested in branded cattle — period,” Reister said.
Producers should also consider locking gates leading to and between pastures to discourage trespassing and theft. Signage can also be placed warning of no trespassing allowed, crime watch areas and even of video monitoring.
Reister says “trail cams” are an excellent method to deter thieves — and to catch them. “They’re easily hidden, you can put them in an area where you can capture a licence plate number, or capture people coming and going,” Reister said.
Brower says a field camera would stick out like a sore thumb on his land, which is all prairie, devoid of trees and shrubs. He believes the thieves have been coming in on horseback, and says two others in the area have been targeted as well. Landowners should also pay attention to people they allow on their land, and record the names and licence plates of hunters or recreationalists granted land access.
It’s difficult to know what happens to the stolen cattle — whether they are butchered, sold at auction, or retained in someone’s herd. Reister says stolen cattle from Alberta have been recovered in Manitoba, the only one out of the four western provinces that does not brand, or inspect brands. “That says something good about our brand inspection in Alberta and Saskatchewan, because it drives the criminals elsewhere. Unfortunately, they take our cows with them,” said Rowland, adding that branding is still the best theft-recovery tool available. “It’s old school, but it works.”
The WSGA is working with Crimestoppers to offer the $50,000 reward. Anyone with information pertaining to any cattle theft should contact Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).