Letter to the editor: Livestock theft in SD
By now, some of you may have heard that our family experienced the apparent theft of 16 mares and 1 stallion from two pastures southwest of Timber Lake, SD, around May 1, 2010. You may have seen their photos recently on Keloland’s online Classified ads, listed as “missing horses” among the “horse for sale” ads, heard people talking about it at the local cafe, or seen the flyer advertising their loss at a local business. This letter, while it is prompted by our hope to successfully recover our 17 missing horses, is actually more about livestock theft in general in our area and beyond. I hope some may find it informative or thought-provoking enough to read and perhaps even discuss.
When our other prime, highly-valued, red dun stallion disappeared six years ago, my husband spent over two years unsuccessfully searching that rugged pasture for his remains in total disbelief that anyone would have stolen him. Finally, we had to accept that it was, after all, quite possible that someone had. So, this year, after actively and diligently looking for our missing horses ourselves for a much shorter period, it was time to call a halt to the fruitless searching of our pastures and neighboring pastures and go public in the search.
Like any other stolen livestock, we feel fairly certain that someone, somewhere, has seen or will see these horses. In a trailer going down the road, or across the fence, or in a salebarn somewhere, they’ve seen one or more of them. Whether they would remember them or recognize them or not: by now some of them have most likely been visible to some uninvolved individual out there at some time since their disappearance.
Many people’s initial reaction to our story has been disbelief. “Did we check the fences, check for bodies, check with the neighbors… they must be there or nearby.” While I can understand that, and it was also our first reaction, it doesn’t change what happened. We had checked them not long before and they were fine, so we weren’t initially worried when we didn’t see them for awhile. It was not unusual to only see them from time to time, if we weren’t riding the entire pasture for some reason: always before, they’d just been behind a hill somewhere out of sight for a bit. These horses had grass, had water, they were “located” in those pastures, they knew where “home” was. They didn’t just wander off for no reason at all. Some of them were born on the property, others had spent most of their lives there. Even if they had found a fence down somewhere and crossed it, they were surrounded by other pastures, other fences and closed gates. We’d have found them or the neighbors would have seen them in their pastures. After we started getting worried and began searching, it was very hard to stop, even after we’d checked all possibilities over and over again. We couldn’t help hoping that they’d just turn up or we’d find them somewhere around, if we just looked one more time.
It’s hard for some folks to understand how things are in cattle country. Pastures can be several thousands acres in size, with creeks, trees, hills, and draws for animals to “hide” in or behind. Horses generally stay bunched, stay together in one or more bands; they don’t often spread out for miles like a herd of cattle may while grazing. With either horses or cattle, some days you can ride for miles and finally find all of them tucked up in one corner out of sight over a ridge, if weather or other conditions are right. Other days, you go into the pasture and they’re all out in the open, in plain sight. You don’t automatically assume immediately that they’re gone, just because you haven’t seen them yet.
There’s a reason we say “lost, strayed or stolen.” It’s a fact of life that some animals are going to “crawl a fence,” sooner or later, or find a damaged spot to go through. Its no big deal to find a cow-calf pair or maybe a yearling or two in the neighbor’s pasture or find his in yours, sooner or later. Even a few head at a time, if a tree takes down the fence or bulls knock it down fighting, etc. You see them, or the neighbor sees them, and you may put them back and then fix the fence. Or you may just fix it and call them up when you get home, tell them they’re there, maybe even tell them when you’re going to be moving that herd to the corrals sometime soon so they could just come get them when they’re sorted off, especially if they’re on the wilder side.
If a rancher finds one or more head missing at any given time, he has to rule out death loss, check the pastures and fences, check with the neighbors, maybe even ride adjoining pastures. It takes time. You don’t automatically assume they’re stolen, you don’t immediately point the finger at someone. Good neighbors don’t want your animals, they want to know that you’ll return their stock just like they’ll return yours. They want to know that if you see something they should know about on their side of the fence, you’ll tell them.
Many ranchers consider their neighbor’s first-hand stories about having suffered losses of livestock to be privileged information and don’t repeat it. In this way, we know of many cases of animal thefts or disappearances in our area. There are many more we don’t know about. These same people, and others, if they will come forward, may be helpful in putting a stop to at least one group of cattle and horse thieves. If no one knows just how many animals have gone missing and in what areas, under what circumstances and at what times, comparatively little public attention is usefully directed to the matter compared to the actual numbers lost.
I’ve been around long enough to have heard some “rustling” stories. Most ranchers will have heard those stories or others, or maybe experienced some version themselves. In some states, they’ve had livestock theft rings who moved in at night, with trucks, riders, portable corrals, rounded up cattle and hauled them away by the truckload. In and out in a hour or two, perhaps, in some cases. They scope out the areas, know the lay of the land, know where the animals are and when the owners and neighbors are most likely to not be in the area. They operate by knowing when people are least likely to be around to notice.
Others may slip in on horseback, cut out a small bunch, trail them to an out-of-the-way pasture or corral they know of several miles away, maybe even let them “sit” for a day or two or longer, then move them on or load them out. If they know how to handle stock, know how to ride, they can effectively move cattle for miles at night, can realistically trail horses for up to twenty miles or more, once they get them moving. There are even stories of cattle thieves transporting a few head in travel trailers. And how many people out there have had a tame saddlehorse “lifted” from a pasture suddenly? One day they’re there, the next day they’re just gone. It happens more often than you may suspect.
I would be very interested in hearing a few more actual livestock theft stories, more tales of suspicious activity – as I really hope people become more willing to report stolen animals or suspicious activity that may involve animal theft. I’m not saying point your fingers at your neighbors – I’m saying please pay attention and be willing to talk about what you know or may have seen, so folks will become more aware. Having animals stolen does not mean you’re a poor stockman or a bad manager. It means someone out there is skilled enough to profit from your loss – and I, for one, would like to see life made a lot harder for those thieves, because they’ve certainly made life a lot harder for many of the rest of us.
Along with a lot of other folks, we’ve had cattle or horses stolen over the years and not reported it, for various reasons: too much time passed, uncertainty that one or two animals may have died or legitimately strayed, unwillingness to be talked about or be made to look like a tempting target for other thieves in the future, lack of faith that the animals could be recovered or those responsible apprehended, etc.
It may interest you to know that, since April 1, 2010, we’ve had not one, but three, events of this nature worth mentioning. The first was suspicious circumstances involving seven head of cows, all well matched for size, color, age and condition, out on the road with a wide open gate behind them, following an extremely moonlit night. Checking tracks showed that these seven head had traveled two miles in the opposite direction from the main herd and then returned to the area of the open gate and their home pasture. The rest of the multi-colored cowherd had retreated over a mile from where these cows left our pasture, to all be bunched up tightly, waiting at our corrals come daylight – a significant change from normal behavior patterns. A neighbor reported our cattle out on the road, and received our thanks, as we didn’t count those cows every day (so very close to home, after all!). The second incident was the disappearance of our 16 mares and one stallion. The third was a gelding “straying” two or three miles from a pasture and his six buddies for no apparent reason and strong suspicions, after examining it, that someone had refastened a gate differently than we’d left it. We found one missing and brought the rest home immediately. A neighbor called around awhile later to report a horse in his pasture… and it turned out to be ours.
The first incident we reported promptly, suspicious circumstances potentially relating to an attempted cattle theft, as we’d finally decided we’d lost more than enough to thieves and it was past time to speak up. The second, obviously, we’re also making very public. The third we minimally reported as suspicious circumstances, after his retrieval… we were frankly more focused on our missing mares and stallion the day we discovered that one missing and had not yet had time to check with all the neighbors ourselves by the time he was indeed located.
Were these cases of a failed theft, a successful theft and an aborted theft? I know what I suspect in each case, but you decide what you think. And, while you’re doing that, please consider taking a more active reporting stance on any suspicious activity or animal disappearances you yourselves may experience. Myself, I plan to create a website (http://sites.google.com/site/findsaber) with photos and information to make it easier for those who might help to identify any of our missing horses. I’m hopeful to someday be able to post “recovered” across at least some of their pictures there. We’ll keep putting up flyers and talking to folks. I would also be happy to make this letter available to other interested publications, in order to spread the word and hopefully help us all reach a fuller understanding and more effective response to present-day livestock theft… that’s my personal response to this issue. I look forward in future to seeing what each of you may choose to do regarding discouraging livestock theft, as well.
Dusty Thorstenson and family
Timber Lake, SD
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