FAIRFIELD, ND (AP)--It takes a lot more than a six-shooter and a posse of angry ranchers to track down the rustlers that stalk cattle country these days. The price of beef is up, and law enforcement officials say more cattle are being stolen from the vast, open land where they graze. Officials in many states report little success in catching the rustlers, despite reward offers.
"You don't see any other business owners leave a $500 piece of merchandise up on the side of a mountain," said Gary Shoun, a Colorado brand inspector. "We are the only industry in the world that has to do business that way."
The main weapon against thieves is the 200-year-old cattle brand, which ensures that only legitimate cows are sold at auctions. But some places do not require brand inspections, and many calves on the range do not have brands.
Brand inspectors also say rustlers are getting more sophisticated. Some butcher the beef on the spot with electric chain saws.
In North Dakota, officials believe a band of rustlers in the badlands uses spotters with radios, motorcycles and dogs to circle the cows. Authorities also say collapsible corrals and semi-trucks are used to cart cattle out of state under the veil of darkness.
"It is just not anybody that can go out into those badlands and steal cattle," said Dennis Krumm, chief brand inspector for the North Dakota Stockmen's Association. "It has to be someone with a good plan. No ordinary man could go in there and do it."
Early this summer, rustlers got away with $100,000 worth of cattle from the National Grasslands in western North Dakota. The grasslands are 520,000 acres of buttes, draws, rolling prairie and a maze of dirt roads that can hide an escaping truckload of cattle. Krumm said the theft is the biggest he can remember in North Dakota.
Sonny Egly, a rancher in Fairfield, finds more of his cattle stolen each year, first a few, then a couple of dozen, then 74 cows and 74 calves boldly snatched over a period of a few weeks in May and June.
The losses were not insured. Egly's wife said she and her husband would be forced to quit ranching if they did not already own their house and property.
Egly said he was so angry about the theft at first that he was ready to sell. "But it was my dad's place, and I want it to be my children's place," he said.
Gene Fedorenko of Medora lost 20 cattle last month and 40 cow-calf pairs last fall. His fences were cut, and the thieves left behind tire tracks and a $35,000 to $40,000 hole in his profits.
"I am pretty sure they are using radios and lookouts," he said. "Other than that, I don't know what they are doing or where they are going."
Because of an increase in demand for beef and decrease in supply, cattle prices are up 19% from last year and almost 40% since 1996, said Wade Moser, executive vice president of the stockmen's association.
Statistics on rustling are nearly impossible to compile. Brand inspectors in North Dakota, Nebraska, Oregon, Colorado and Idaho say a suspect is caught in only about 10% of the open-range thefts in their states.
Officials in Oklahoma and Kansas say they have no similar figures because of the nature of the crime. It is often hard to tell whether cattle are stolen or wandered off.
Since ranchers leave cattle unattended for months at a time, crime scene evidence such as truck tracks are often long gone by the time the thefts are discovered.
"A smart guy can go out there and steal three or four and nobody would ever find out," said Larry Hayhurst, a brand inspector in Idaho.
Shoun, the Colorado brand inspector, said officials are starting to use new strategies to combat thefts, such as DNA testing and placing computer chips in cows to conduct sting operations.
"We are kind of coming out of the rock-and-stick age--and many states are," he said. "We're just getting smarter than we used to be about it."