The ugly truth about cattle rustling is that it’s fairly common in Alberta.
“Every year, we have more calves stolen,” RCMP livestock investigator Cpl. Lindsey Anderson said earlier this month. “We were able to charge someone a couple weeks back and get a search warrant to recover some stolen calves.
“A lot of times, especially in those instances, there are thefts that we think have occurred, but we don’t have the evidence to pursue anything.”
That’s not for lack of trying, said Anderson, one of two RCMP investigators who works with Livestock Identification Services, a not-for-profit company that oversees brand registration, livestock inspection, and livestock dealer licensing.
“The Livestock Identification Services database is amazing because any time that branded cattle are reported stolen or missing, we enter them into the database,” she said. “And then if they cross an inspection site down the road, we’re notified.”
But oftentimes, rustlers aren’t the stereotype of hardened criminals operating in the dead of night.
“It’s very typical where you have two neighbours that share a fence line and one person’s cattle will stray onto the other person’s property,” she said. “Instead of reporting it, it’s common for the neighbour to take ownership of the animals. Especially if things aren’t branded, it’s easy to just throw your own brand on those cows and claim ownership.”
And branding is key, she said.
“If you report 10 to 20 animals missing and they’re not branded, it’s very hard for us to do our job,” said Anderson. “We can’t identify them.”
But if they are branded, it can be a different story.
“That’s where we use the livestock inspectors,” said Anderson. “Those guys work really hard and they clip them and we rely on them to be our experts in court for identification.”
By law, when cattle leave Alberta, Saskatchewan or B.C., they need to have a brand inspection.
“If you are going to be sending cattle on pasture to Saskatchewan to be on grass for the summer, you have to get an inspection and you’re issued a grazing permit,” she said. “So we’ll do investigations into people who have failed to do inspections and get their permit in order for the cattle to leave the province.”
Still, catching cattle thieves can be very hard.
In 2018, Anderson participated in the premiere episode of a CBC documentary series called ‘Farm Crimes,’ which detailed the theft of 50 cattle from Walt Suntjens. The well-known rancher from Hanna had returned from a vacation to find the cattle missing and he immediately suspected an employee. Although proving the theft was challenging, the show demonstrated that this type of crime can be solved — and that there are steps that can help prevent cattle thefts, said Anderson.
“Do background checks on any employee that you’re going to be hiring,” she said. “Be careful who you’re going to trust. I know everybody wants to trust their neighbours, but you just never know.
“Definitely keep good records. A lot of times, people will report animals missing, but they don’t know what their actual count should be.”
In the CBC documentary, Suntjens’ cattle are purchased by a third party who has no idea that they’re stolen.
“If you’re buying anything off Kijiji, you don’t know if it could be stolen,” said Anderson. “If it (the price) is too good to be true, I will always tell people that it probably is too good to be true.”
If suspicious, a buyer can always contact a livestock inspector.
Oftentimes, the payment process raises red flags.
“People get scammed all the time. Never front any money. Don’t deposit money or do an e-transfer into someone’s bank account to hold property if you don’t know who that person is.”
There are also some basic precautions to take when buying from or selling to someone you don’t know.
“When you meet the person, always make it a public place or somewhere where you know that you’re going to be safe,” said Anderson. “Get government-issued ID and a proper bill of sale for anything that you are buying. Always be careful about accepting personal cheques from someone you don’t know because those can bounce.”
Along with keeping records, checking fences regularly, and branding, don’t hesitate to give Livestock Identification Services a call.
“If you think someone has been out spinning some doughnuts in your pasture, you’re missing some calves and you’re not sure if coyotes got them or if they’ve been stolen — just report it,” she said. “It never hurts to report it. Keep good numbers. Know what’s missing and that way we have something to go from.”
If a theft has just happened, it’s best to contact the local RCMP detachment. For more on Livestock Identification Services and its work, go to www.lis-ab.com. The two seasons of Farm Crime are now available on Gem, CBC’s free streaming service. The episode Cattle Cops is the first show in Season 1 and a link can be found at www.cbc.ca/farmcrime.