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Can New Technology Catch Old Thieves?

Cattle rustling might sound like something out of an old spaghetti western. But cattle theft is still very much alive and well in Oregon.

Oregon Field Guide’s Ed Jahn reports on what’s happening, and whether new technology might be able to help.

Slideshow Photos and Audio by Scott Silver
Produced by Colin Lovett

It’s branding day on the Skinner ranch in southeast Oregon’s Jordan Valley, a few miles from the Idaho border. More than 200 cows and calves stir restlessly in a large corral.

One by one, ranchers on horseback rope the calves and hold them still. Two women give vaccinations while another rancher cuts identifying notches into the calves’ ears.

The calves are then marked with an electric brand.

Bob Skinner: “This is an electric S iron. We put a double SS on the left hip. We put a hot iron on em’, that’s the law….”

That law is the Oregon brand law, which spells out how branding should be done. The state brand inspector says that law also helps prevent theft, because every cow sold or moved out of Oregon is supposed to be brand inspected by an agent to verify ownership.

That system doesn’t always work. In fact, ranchers and law enforcement agents say modern day rustlers have been doing a brisk business in cattle theft lately.

Rand Collins: “My name is Rand Collins, I ranch here in JV Oregon, I ranch on both sides of the line, in Idaho and Oregon both."

Collins is helping Bob brand cattle today. He’s also a victim of rustlers. He says thieves stole about 150 of his cows over the past few years.

Rand Collins: “It’s like a disaster. It’s like a flood hittin ya’. The flood's over and you just try to do the cleanup and move on.”

With some animals worth more than $1,000, Collins estimates he’s taken a $150,000 hit.

Now you might wonder- how does someone steal a bunch of loud, 2000 pound animals?

“Unfortunately it’s not that hard,"said Andrew Bentz, the sheriff of Malheur County and a rancher himself. “You know one guy on horseback with a good dog can get a gooseneck trailer full of cattle pretty easily.”

Rancher Rand Collins suspects that rustlers are familiar with the routines of rural life. “There can be a funeral or a wedding or a ballgame here, where 70-80 percent of the people that live here can be at that event, and everyone knows it," he said.

Ranchers in Malheur and surrounding counties aren’t taking this lying down. They’ve put up nearly $50,000 of their own money as a reward but so far no arrests.

One problem is that ranchers here run their cattle on the open range, which includes thousands of square miles of wild and unpopulated country.

Bob Skinner: “Stay away from propeller, ok?”

On the open range where Bob Skinner runs cattle the only efficient way to get around is by airplane.

Ed Jahn: “if you were to try to explain this country to someone from the city, how could you do it?"

Bob Skinner: “People just can’t get their arms around the vastness. No question, we are the most remote area in the lower 48….,"

Jordan Valley — Oregon Field Guide

From the air there are no people or towns to be seen- just an endless sea of sagebrush and canyons. Sheriff Bentz says it’s the kind of country where thieves can hide in plain sight.

And, he says, once those thieves herd some cattle into a trailer- all they have to do is hit the road and head across the border to one of the many states without a brand law.

Bentz said that in those states, if you say a cow is yours, it’s yours, brand or not.

Which is why there’s talk now about whether the branding system could use an update.

One way to start would be to identify cattle electronically — something that’s already common with household pets.

”I am Dr. Masie Custis. I am the owner of  Harney County Veterinary Clinic in Burns, Oregon. This is Winifrid Anne, she’s a 2.5-year-old long-haired dappled dachsund, mini-dachsund, and we will be microchipping her today.”

Dr. Custis opens a syringe that, instead of fluid, holds a microchip no bigger than a grain of rice.

“So, we just take it, pull up her skin, kind of tent it up, and poke (good girl!), it’s in the skin now, I push, and then grab with my fingers and pull it, rub it for a little TLC, so she doesn’t hate me forever,"she said.

Dr. Custis passes a small handheld scanner over Winifred – and in less than a second -  numbers appear on the screen.

“And there’s her number. She’s identified forever," she said.

If Winifred wanders off or gets stolen, Dr. Custis could flag her in a national database of lost pets. If Winifred turns up in almost any shelter nationwide, a simple scan would show instantly that Dr. Custis was looking for her. 

The idea could theoretically work for stolen cattle too.

Microchipping is just one technology of course — there are also GPS collars, radio frequency ID tags — but so far, Sheriff Bentz says these ideas have gotten a chilly reception among ranchers he knows.

“I have brought it up at different meetings. The one I got the most pushback from was the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, there was quite a hubbub occurred. I think some people dismiss it because it’s new, there’s a shadowy sense that maybe big brother or government up to no good," he said.

Part of the problem is that for any technology to work better than a good old fashioned brand, it would have to tie into some kind of national database that could track every cow in the country.

Rand Collins isn’t the only rancher who’s cool to that idea. “Unless it were a law, you’d never make it work, and then there’d be some resistance," he said.

Ed Jahn: ”Where is the resistance coming from?”

Rand Collins: “Put it quite frankly, it’s just the old pioneer spirit. Ranchers like to kind of be on their own and they work with the land and the animals, and pretty hard to have other people telling them what to do.”

There are many reasons ranchers give for not making the leap: cost, tradition, the lack of one perfect technology.

But when it comes right down to it Bob Skinner said it’s just hard to get ranchers to agree on anything.

“You’re talking about a bunch of independent people, first of all. They’re very independent or they can’t be in this business. Having said that it’s a problem when you start talking about national databases. People don’t trust the government to hold those databases. They’re afraid it might be used against us in some way. There’s extreme distrust in the system," he said.

Any technology that does come along will have to prove it’s better than the old-west style branding system. But with miles and miles of open range and only a few officers on patrol, Sheriff Bentz will take whatever help he can get.

“There’s a lot of resistance to some of these changes, and some of it with good reason, but, to prevent these problems, um, yeah, we’re gonna’ have to look to technology someday," said the sheriff.

That “someday” might still be a long way off.

OPB’s Scott Silver was the field producer for this story.