BURNING QUESTIONS: Why branding is essential to preventing theft | TSLN.com

BURNING QUESTIONS: Why branding is essential to preventing theft

Branding is a time-honored tradition that still serves a purpose. A hot iron brand that permanently identifies cattle is one of the only indelible ways of marking ownership. Photo by Amanda Merkel.

Western history is rich with tales of rustling, rustlers, and hangmen’s nooses. We’re a couple centuries beyond the worst of that, and think of the West as “civilized” and mostly “law abiding.” Those ideals notwithstanding, as last year drew to a close, this very publication was advertising some 40 head of missing cattle – cows, calves and yearlings in South Dakota and Wyoming.

In 2008 Idaho reporter Elaine Thompson wrote, “Anywhere between 300 to 500 head of cattle and around 25 horses in Idaho are reported lost or missing each year in Idaho alone, according to law enforcement officials. Once the province of outlaws and the bane of hardscrabble ranchers who grazed their cattle on the open range, cattle rustling has never gone away.”

Wayne Gard, writing for the the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers reports “In the late 1970s, a new type of thief emerged known as the ‘Suburban rustler.’ This individual usually attacked unattended ranchettes, stole four or five head, and took the cattle immediately to auction. Techniques of theft in the later twentieth century included anesthetizing cattle with hypodermic darts, using trained bulldogs to bring the animals down, and herding the booty with helicopters. As the price of beef escalated, so did the ingenuity of the rustlers. Since the early twentieth century, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers has employed field inspectors to police cattle rustling. These agents, deputized by the Texas Department of Public Safety as Special Texas Rangers, helped to recover 4,000 cattle in 1993.”

Money, and what crooks seem to think of as “easy money,” drives crime and always has. There’s a lot of money in livestock today–all ages of livestock. Newborn calves are going for a premium $600 to $900 at auction markets this spring. Some ranchers feel those good mamas shouldn’t be written off a full year if their baby dies, so they buy a replacement if possible. With such prices being paid, producers whose calving pastures border highways are fully aware how easily some innocently dozing bovine baby could be snatched from his cozy nap into a soon-speeding automobile. Perhaps they even wish their mama cows had horns, and maybe a little of the old man-eating Bramha or Longhorn blood.

Checking out an ad for designer handbags made of “genuine calf hair” won’t comfort those ranchers. Dyed in exotic animal patterns the “calf hair bags” are priced from $595 (for a little clutch purse) to $2,995 for larger styles. Makes one wonder where those high dollar hides come from.

Branding calves gives time-tested proof of ownership and discourages theft. The 1908 Arizona brand book laid down the basics: “The theory under which a brand is considered prima facie evidence of ownership, is the theory that one person only, to wit: The record owner of the brand (he having complied with all the requirements of law under which such right is conditioned), and no other person whosoever within the jurisdiction wherein the branded animal is located, has the lawful right to evidence his ownership by means of the brand in question. The use of a brand does not consist merely in the manual act of placing the brand upon an animal. The purpose and use of a brand consists in evidencing or attempting to evidence, the ownership of an animal by means of the brand on the animal. Therefore, so long as the owner of the animal seeks to evidence his ownership by means of the brand on the animal, the brand is in use and the annual license fee for brand tax should be paid or the right to such use of the brand will no longer exist, and the brand will no longer continue to be valid prima facie evidence of ownership.

“It is of the utmost importance to every range stock man who is almost entirely dependent upon his brand as a means of proving the ownership of his livestock, to see that the requirements of the law relating to the validity of his brand are fully complied with; and that his cattle are branded with the brand in the exact manner shown upon the record.”

Two current Wyoming brand laws prove things haven’t changed. 11-20-108 declares, “A certified copy of any brand recorded in the office of the board is prima facie evidence of ownership of animals branded therewith for that species of livestock recorded by the board. The brand shall be received as evidence of ownership in all legal proceedings involving title to the animal. And 11-20-102 states, “Every stock owner allowing his livestock over six (6) months old to run at large or mingle with livestock other than his own, shall brand his livestock with his recorded brand.”

In May, 2009, Debi Metcalfe with Stolen Horse International reported, “Thieves across the country know that laws are lacking, which poses a significant danger to horse and cattle owners. Today, Stolen Horse International commends the states that already have or are currently making the penalties harsher when it comes to livestock theft.”

She said in a press release, “They don’t hang rustlers these days, but Montana’s Legislature has passed a bill this session to jack-up the penalties not only for the theft of livestock but for illegal branding as well. SB 214 passed easily in both the House and Senate. Montana’s Senate Bill 214 requires that a person convicted of the theft or illegal branding of any livestock pay a minimum fine of $5,000 and not exceeding $50,000 or serve a jail sentence not exceeding 10 years or both. The current law has no mandatory minimum fine. The current bill also says that if a jail sentence is deferred, offenders must contribute a mandatory 416 hours of community service. In addition, any equipment used in the crime – trucks, horse-trailers, etc. – could be confiscated. An earlier version of the bill would have allowed authorities to seize a rustler’s ranch.”

Texas lawmakers increased penalties for cattle rustling in 2009, making it a third degree felony and punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Oklahoma, New Mexico and Louisiana have also enacted stricter penalties for livestock theft.

Metcalfe elaborated, “Aside from increased penalties, law enforcement is also going high-tech. In the Alabama theft, DNA evidence was used to create links and identify suspects. This led to the arrest of nine suspects, and Ron Sparks, Commissioner of Agriculture, expected at least twice that many during the course of the ongoing investigation. Because of the rise in agricultural thefts involving horses, Stolen Horse International’s new website will have listings for cattle and other types of farm thefts,” Metcalfe concluded.

South Dakota

The South Dakota Brand Board offers a reward of up to $5,000 to any person who provides information leading to the conviction of any person for the crime of stealing livestock which are branded with a brand registered with the board.

In an ongoing effort to prevent cattle rustling, the South Dakota Brand Board employs 115 fulltime, part time and local brand inspectors to check brands on cattle selling through sale barns and direct off the ranch.

The brand registry in South Dakota boasts 26,000 brands. South Dakota brands have to be renewed every five years, and producers have until May 1, 2015 to renew their brands. Brands that were allowed to lapse in the last renewal period are now available for review and application.


Christian Mackay, executive officer for the Montana Board of Livestock reported, “The Montana Department of Livestock’s Brands Enforcement Division recovered and returned 4,630 head of lost, stolen and strayed livestock, worth $6.4 million, to their rightful owners in 2013. That’s a return to producers of nearly $2 for every dollar the division spends. Helping resolve ownership issues is one of our core responsibilities, and we’ve been at it a long time.”

The MDOL Brand Enforcement Division is the state’s oldest law enforcement agency. Over the last 10 years they have returned to producer 39,897 head of livestock, worth about $44 million.

About half of their $3 million budget this year coming from per capita fees, and half from inspection fees. The division employs 57 people, and about half are in Helena, and the rest are in the field or livestock markets, Mackay said.

An additional 500 local, volunteer brand inspectors help recover more than half of the livestock lost, stolen or strayed each year. “It’s really a testament to our people in the field, and to the system we have in place,” Mackay said.


The 68 men and women serving within Colorado’s Brand Inspection Division administer over 34,000 Colorado brands and annually inspect more than 4 million head of livestock, scattered across 104,000 square miles. This necessitates over 1 million miles of travel and an annual budget of over $4 million – all cash funded by the livestock industry through brand inspections and assessment fees.


The Nebraska Cattlemen Theft Reward program offers up to a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of any person(s) stealing cattle from a member of the Nebraska Cattlemen. Shawn Harvey with the Nebraska brand office out of Alliance said they inspect about four million cattle a year – and the eastern third of the state is not even under the brand law. Harvey said Nebraska employs around 103 inspectors, of which 58 work full-time. They also have four criminal investigators, spread across the territory.

Nebraska also has a special program involving a registered feedlot inspector. “That’s real popular along the river corridor in the middle of the state,” Harvey said. The the Platte River-bottom farming regions attract a lot of feeder cattle, feedlots small and large, and outside cattle coming and going for pasture on cornstalks and wheat stubble.

Harvey said they get eight or ten reports of actually “stolen” cattle a year, with a lot more “missing” reports. Ranchers are a proud and independent lot, not given to crying wolf and never wanting to report anything in error and end up looking stupid, but waiting can be a serious mistake.

“I was an investigator for seven years,” Harvey said, “and while we can never guarantee we’ll find missing cattle it sure makes the odds a lot better if they are quickly reported. You wouldn’t wait a month to report a stolen car, and very few would be found if you did – but that’s what they do about cattle a lot of the time.”

“It’s changed so much who we’re dealing with in cattle theft,” Harvey said. “A lot of them are drug addicts, and one baby calf can supply their habit for a month. We stress to our producers the importance of reporting any missing cattle right away.”

North Dakota

According to the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame one of their 2006 honorees, Andrew Johnston, was recognized for inventing the gattle guard and helping start brand inspections in the Dakotas. “In early 1929, Andrew offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any cattle thief who had stolen cattle, an impetus for organizing the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association later that year. One of the founders of the NDSA, Andrew served as its first secretary/ treasurer and as president from 1939 1941.”

Now NDSA director Julie Ellingson says the association has a standing reward fund for information leading to the conviction of someone who steals cattle, horses or mules. Noting geographical differences in how and when producers brand their animals, Ellingson said “The 22,000 brands registered in North Dakota serve as a return address and proof of ownership, both extra important now with the high value on any lost or stolen animal.”


Wyoming brand inspector Jack Streeter just celebrated 44 years on the job, having begun in Torrington, and moved to Gillette the fall of 1971. The changes he’s seen are impressive. “You know, there never used to be anything to this town south of the Iinterstate,” he said. “And right where the sheriff’s office is today was Einar Lodall’s horse pasture. All we dealt with when I started was ranchers . . . now everybody with a half acre has a horse or a cow. And there’s so many pasture cattle comin’ in and out. The paperwork we have to deal with is unreal.”

Streeter shared a story of just another day on the job. “A guy called two or three days ago and told me he had a stray bull in his corral. So I went out there. The bull was a little high-headed so I didn’t want to go in the corral with him and I said, ‘Run him in the chute and we’ll check him.’ He got him in there and we found the brand–and it was his own. I asked him how much he’d pay me if I didn’t tell his wife.”

Kim Clark at Cokeville, Wyoming is the Senior Investigator for Wyoming brand inspection. He says he doesn’t know that there’s really any more cattle theft than in the past, but affirms, “It’s a whole lot bigger potential with the cattle market as high as it is.”

Unfortunately, Clark says the majority of his investigation is directed toward criminal abuse reports, especially horses. “People come to Wyoming, get a job in the oilfield, buy a ranchette and the next thing they want is an animal, probably a horse. After a few months they discover the danged things eat hay,” he said. “We did a little math last fall and figured out probably 40 percent of our time is devoted to animal abuse reports.”

Asked if there’s been a change since US horse processing plants were closed he answered in the affirmative. “There are a lot of them, turned out on federal lands, abandoned, and it’s on the rise,” he said.

Wyoming’s brand inspectors are devoted to “making our presence known” by stopping a lot of traffic to verify brand paperwork. “Last year we checked upwards of five or six thousand on the highway,” Clark said, adding, “The truckers say it’s unusual the way they get stopped in Wyoming, and that Nevada is about the only other place that happens.”

Even the tiny Tri-Valley Dispatch at Casa Grande, Arizona, one of the state’s popular team roping meccas for northern snowbirds, relayed news from Sheridan, Wyoming: “The ad in the paper is a plea for help. An offer is made — $20,000 in exchange for information about 24 cows branded ‘D — D’ and 28 calves stolen from Sheridan last year. Cattle rustling is not a thing of the past. The missing cattle wear a brand owned by William J. Doenz of Sheridan who manages the D Bar D Ranch. The cattle were grazing when they disappeared in August 2013.”

Clark said that investigation is ongoing. “The investigation has been massive, a lot of people have been interviewed. But it’s still an open, unsolved case.”

Jimmy Stamp, writing for Smithsonian, called branding “bovine pyroglyphics.” He went on to say, “Although the phrase ‘cattle rustler’ conjures romantic images of the Old West, it is still a very real problem for today’s ranchers. In fact, the U.S. is currently experiencing something of a rustling renaissance. Consequently, there’s also something of a branding revival. Despite the invention of GPS tagging, DNA testing (yes, for cattle), and other preventative measures, branding is still the top preventative measure to combat cattle theft. Carl Bennett, director of the Louisiana Livestock Brand Commission recently told USA Today that ‘We have yet to find a system that can replace a hot brand on a cow. There’s nothing in modern society that’s more sure.’”

That’s the biggest reason the smell of horse sweat and burnin’ hair will soon engulf branding pens all across the far-flung cowboy rangelands. F

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