Cattle rustling still a big problem for ranchers

Blame high prices and Manitoba for making theft easy

Cattle rustling is still a line of work worth getting into with the price of beef at record highs and places that will take ill-gotten cattle off your hands with no questions asked.

Aaron Brower is a rancher and the president of the Alberta-based Western Stock Growers’ Association (WSGA). Losing animals to thieves became bad enough for its members that in February 2012 he persuaded the WSGA to raise a long-standing bounty on rustlers to $50000.

Brower says the WSGA has offered the reward since 1896 but for decades it remained at about $1000 for anyone who turns in a cattle thief who is eventually convicted. Only recently did he and his associates decide it was time to increase it to a “decent sum.”

Brower’s ranch is in a remote part of southern Alberta which he suggests makes it easier for thieves to make off with his cattle.

“Some years we’ll get hit a couple of years in a row and then they’re gone and then they come back…. What I suspect is they come in on horse maybe with a dog because if you’re a good hand with a dog you can move a lot of stuff in a day” Brower explains. “If you load them up in the dark here by daylight you’re in Manitoba.”

Getting stolen cattle to Manitoba is key as it’s the nearest place cattle markets won’t check brands or identification tags in the animals’ ears.

“Down there [in Manitoba] brands don’t mean nothing so they don’t even look at the brand. As long as it says on the manifest that they’re of Manitoba origin you can sell them for cash” he says. Brower estimates rustlers have taken more than 200 of his cattle over the past decade.

“If I was a bad guy I would be transporting to Manitoba” confirms RCMP Cpl. Christian Reister. “They’re not checking brands and there’s no requirement for a bill of sale. It’s an obvious hole. It’s similar to a dealership not recording a VIN off a vehicle and then allowing you to trade it in. It would just be a huge black hole for stolen vehicles and that’s what we’re dealing with here.”

Reister is one of only two RCMP officers in Alberta dedicated to investigating crimes related to livestock. He and Cpl. Dave Heaslip work closely with ranchers ranch associations and the provincial Livestock Identification Services to track down missing animals.

“There’s a lot of pressure on the Manitoba government to do brand inspecting but that all comes with a cost. If you’re going to employ a lot of brand inspectors and start recording and permitting cattle and tracking all movement of cattle it’s a lot of resources. Now in the province of Alberta [for] every animal that is bought or sold at an auction mart or permitted in the province there’s a fee of $1.25 per head and that’s how our brand inspection is paid for…. It’s pretty cheap insurance” Reister says.

“Bad guys usually steal just a few at a time or a trailer load at a time. And oftentimes producers don’t miss the cattle…. Cattle [prices] are at an all-time high so it doesn’t take very many cattle to make a month’s wages” Reister says of thieves who make about $1000 a head on stolen cattle. He says the issue is difficult to monitor because ranchers with very large herds often don’t notice or don’t report a dozen or fewer missing animals.

While few cattle rustlers steal an entire herd at once Reister and Heaslip say the number of cattle that disappear as a result of fraud is growing. The pair recently wrapped up an investigation into St. Paul rancher Tim Flad who used bank loans to buy nearly 700 cattle and then claimed they had mysteriously vanished.

“That was a prime example of someone that borrowed money against cattle; …basically they were coming in the front gate and he was selling them motoring them out the back gate. We’re still missing 647 head” says Heaslip. In June of 2013 they charged another rancher with allegedly conducting a similar scheme in which he fraudulently sold $1 million worth of cattle.

Heaslip says Alberta has one of the best livestock tracking systems in North America so it’s rare that an animal is genuinely missing. He and Reister believe people who bought any of Tim Flad’s cattle are likely aware of it because the case and his brand are well known in the community.

As for Brower and his problem with traditional clandestine rustlers rounding up animals in his pastures he says he has “a very good idea” who is doing it but is still waiting for the day he has enough proof to turn them in.