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Cattle rustlers find helpful tool in Internet

Economic downturn and the Internet are helping boost the number of cattle thefts in Oregon, says Rodger Huffman, state brand inspector with the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Animal Health and Identification Division.

“It is a lot easier to market stolen animals on the Internet today,” he says. “With hard financial times, it seems that the problem of cattle rustling is increasing, particularly with prices of beef at higher levels. We continue to expect increased thefts this year.”

Unbranded new calves on the open range are easy targets for thieves, he explains.

The new avenue of selling stolen animals via the Internet is hard to police, he says. “Things go up for sale and are gone before traces can be made,” he says. “The sale is made and suddenly there is no sign of the seller on the Internet.”

Many times in his career, Huffman says he has seen beef taken illegally in Oregon. “The opportunity was there, and the thieves were able to transport the animals — sometimes placing small calves in car trunks — to public sales that are perhaps half way across the state where there was an easy, quick market.

“That was before the Internet. Technology is now allowing the buyer and seller to get together even more quickly, often even before ranchers know they’re missing animals.”

The best solutions, he believes, is for ranchers to keep closer track of their animals, checking on them more often and making sure their counts match up with what they know they own.

Fines, prison terms

Penalties for livestock theft can be hefty, bringing prison terms if values of taken stock go over $10,000. In one historic case in Union County, a thief was found guilty of racketeering and received a four-year prison sentence, he recalls.

But prosecutions aren’t frequent, since many times as long as the animals are returned to their rightful owners, the rancher will decline prosecution. “In some cases, cattle are taken by neighbors, and these are people the ranchers have to live with,” he explains. “They get their cattle back, and that’s the end of it.”

ODA, however, can still bring charges, as it did in a recent indictment of a thief found with 10 head of stolen cattle, and was found guilty of two counts of theft.

When it comes to Internet sales, “animals could be sold in a couple of hours, and then the advertisement removed from the site,” he says. To police such sales, “we would have to monitor those sites 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And even then we might not catch someone selling stolen cattle,” he says. “Thieves have a readily available market right there on the Internet.”

Other online sites and electronic communications, such as emails, can create the same conditions that lead to livestock theft,” says Huffman. “It’s quite different than the public auction yard, where ODA brand inspectors verify proof of ownership before animals are sold.”

One technique of catching sales of unbranded new calves continues to be the “mothering technique.” Calves may wander from their mothers, or the cows may leave their young temporarily as they search for water, leaving the newcomers alone and prey for theft.

Once the calves are discovered away from the ranch, in what appears to be a theft situation, owners can bring the young animal back to the ranch to see if the mother cow of the missing calf “mothers up” to the animal.

“This is still a useful technique, and one which actually can hold up in court if we have learned who the potential thieves may be,” says Huffman.

However, the tried-and-true best method of identification remains the brand, although newborn calves are often not branded for several months after they are born in many cases.

For more information, Huffman maybe contacted at 541-562-9169.

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This article published in the June, 2011 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.