Strayed or stolen: South Dakota Brand Board hiring new investigator and inspecting manager; ranchers worry some thefts weren’t being investigated

Some ranchers say they've not been satisfied with the South Dakota Brand Board's response to missing cattle reports. The board recently hired a new interim investigator and is in the process of hiring a permanent investigator and inspection manager. Heather Hamilton-Maude for Tri-State Livestock News
Brand Board members: Name, Location, Position Scott Vance, Faith, Board President Myron Williams, Wall, Board Vice President Lyle Spring, Union Center, Board Member David Paul, Mud Butte, Board Member Haven Stuck, Rapid City, Board Member

In 2020, there were 9 arrests and 10 convictions for cattle theft in South Dakota. In 2021, there were zero.

It’s not because cattle didn’t disappear in 2021–607 were reported missing, down 75 from the previous year. In 2021, 40 new cases were opened, up from 33 in 2020. However, in 2020, 213 animals were recovered, but in 2021 that number dropped to 51, according to South Dakota Brand Board reports. 

Producers, who pay a $1 a head inspection fee any time a cow, horse or mule is sold, or moves into or out of the brand inspection area, are wondering why their missing cattle aren’t being recovered.

With a new interim investigator, things may be looking up for South Dakota producers.

Missing livestock

Many producers who lost cattle throughout the past year report limited response from the brand board investigator. However, a different individual in the investigator’s chair could change this.

Matthew Ochsner from the Aberdeen area said someone from the Brand Board office has contacted him twice, but he has not heard any word since about his missing cattle. He provided information to the local authorities and the Brand Board in order to assist them – possible names, GPS coordinates and more about the yearlings that went missing from his feedlot and the baby calves that disappeared from his pasture. The yearlings were branded and the calves were not.

Several producers report that prior to the hiring of the new interim investigator, they heard little back from the Brand Board after filing reports.

Geary Townsend lives out of state but has owned property in South Dakota for over 20 years. Townsend’s neighbor keeps an eye on his stock, which grazes his private land located within the Pine Ridge. In June 2021, 65 cows and 45 calves went missing, and he contacted the state Brand Board office to report them. “I had no response from anyone, nothing from nobody,” he said. “I’d just like to find my cows. They were probably hauled out of the brand inspection area.” Since then, more of his cattle have gone missing, and he hasn’t heard back from any authority.

Only the counties west of the Missouri River are in the brand inspection area, but additional counties that are contiguous to the current brand inspection area may legally petition to be added to the brand inspection area. A registered brand, properly applied to livestock, is proof of ownership statewide.

Dan Kubal from Lesterville, South Dakota (outside of the brand inspection area) lost seven cows. “[The brand investigator at the time] basically said we weren’t in the brand area and they didn’t want any part of it, they had no jurisdiction.” Kubal said they even had tracks and the thieves ran over a post but as far as he knows, no investigation took place. “We set up cameras all over and are hoping that will eliminate it happening again.”

In February of 2021 Steve Peterson of Salem, South Dakota, which is also outside of the brand area, reported the disappearance of 45 cows and 55 calves from tribal lands. He was told the FBI would be investigating. Now, over a year later he still has never heard from anyone from the FBI or other authorities.

Ted Imsland, a Faith area rancher reported 12 pair missing in April of 2021. His sheriff warned him that he’d probably not hear anything more about them, and he hasn’t.

Kelly Britton from Buffalo reported eight yearling heifers missing to this local sheriff but he was not contacted by the brand investigator and his heifers have not been recovered.

Staff changes

Shorty Zilverberg, who had been the brand investigator since 1990, recently stepped down from that position.

The Brand Board hired Richard Shore, the former chief livestock officer with the Arizona Department of Agriculture, as the interim livestock/brand investigator. According to the Arizona Department of Agriculture website, he retired after over 26 years on the Phoenix Police Department, with 10 of those years on the SWAT team. He served on the Maricopa County fair board and is a longtime livestock owner. He spent a number of years with the Department of Agriculture, first as an officer, then an area supervisor before becoming the chief livestock officer. 

Brand Board member Myron Williams, a rancher from Wall, South Dakota, said Shore is very well qualified and they would like to keep him permanently, but he has accepted another position. “We have been accepting applications for both a chief investigator and a program manager to head brand inspection. That person doesn’t have to be an inspector, but we need someone with strong leadership abilities and able to handle the paperwork. This isn’t a good-old boys club have to be able to boss and handle the livestock holds and the follow up. We have until the first of the year so we are reviewing applications and resumes.”

South Dakota Brand Board director Debbie Trapp, who oversees the day-to-day operations in the Pierre office said the board is conducting interviews to fill two positions: brand inspection program manager (formerly the chief inspector) and brand enforcement/ livestock investigator.

In years past, the chief inspector, who oversees the inspection program, was often chosen from the field of current or former brand inspectors. But Williams said the Brand Board doesn’t believe this individual needs to have brand inspection experience, in part because finding the right former inspector is difficult, and in part because the board believes the new program manager can learn the inspection side of the job by working with the current inspectors.

“He has to know the brand laws. A lot of his time is filling out tallies, following up on holds. He has to supervise 11 full time and 100 part time individuals. He doesn’t necessarily have to have brand inspection experience,” he said.

Scott Hicks, who was recently fired after 39 years as a brand inspector disagrees. He believes the chief inspector needs inspection experience, and says that the last chief inspector, who came in with no inspecting experience, was unable to answer questions posed by Hicks and other inspectors.

Hicks said he was not given a reason for his firing, and had never been reprimanded.

Williams said Hicks “wasn’t getting his job done” and “didn’t have enough work” although a new full-time inspector is now working at Martin, South Dakota, Hicks’ old territory.

Brand inspection and theft investigation background

The South Dakota Brand Board consists of five members, appointed by the governor. By law, they must represent both political parties, with no more than three being from one party. The Brand Board has seven employees in-house in Pierre, including the brand inspection chief, which is currently vacant, and the brand investigator, which is temporarily filled.

The state employs inspectors, who look livestock over before they are moved into or out of the inspection area, and at points of sale in the inspection area, making sure the individual shipping/selling/gifting/slaughtering the animal is the rightful owner. The Brand Board also employs one investigator, who is charged with looking into cattle theft cases to help return livestock to the proper owners.

The Brand Board estimates inspectors verify ownership of 1.6 million head of livestock per year on average, and the board registers 26,000 brands. Minutes from the April 22, 2022 Brand Board meeting–the most recent available online–report the Theft and Prevention Fund has over $275,000 in the account.  The total 2023 fiscal year budget for the brand inspection and investigation program, which was approved in August of 2021, is over $2.44 million.

Livestock owners are not required by law to apply a brand, but they are required to obtain a brand inspection – even on slick (unbranded) livestock when moving them out of the brand area, or changing ownership on the livestock.

In 2020, South Dakota legislators gave the Brand Board the authority to hire a certified law-enforcement officer for the brand investigator position. From 2011 to 2020, the investigators were supervised by the Division of Criminal Investigation, under the authority of the state attorney general, and required law enforcement officers to make any arrests. Now, anyone in that position will need to be certified as a law-enforcement officer.

Williams said they are working hard to find missing stock. “We are doing the best we can but sometimes it’s not as quick as it could be. It’s hard to do everything right and some things get away, but we try to follow up. If it’s been months, it’s tough. It’s a bad deal.”

Williams said they have been trying to work with tribal administration, but the Brand Board has no authority on reservations. “They have to ask us to help and accompany us on tribal lands. We need the tribal administration to act and give us a memorandum of understanding so we can work together.”

The Brand Board website is advertising for a full-time brand inspector in Burke, at Burke Livestock, plus a part-time brand inspector in Winner, and part-time inspectors at “various locations.” The Brand Board publishes a monthly missing/stolen livestock report but has no report online for April, May and June of this year. Trapp said no livestock were reporting missing during those months.

According to the Brand Board website, there are ten full-time brand inspectors, who work at auction markets, inspecting animals when they are sold. Fourteen years ago, the program employed 15 full-time inspectors. The Brand Board website lists 105 local inspectors, who are available on an on-call basis, to inspect cattle moving into or out of the inspection area, to summer pasture, or for private sale, for example. They are paid on a per-head basis. According to a South Dakota Stockgrowers’ magazine, there were 216 local inspectors in 2005.

Rancher input

The smaller number of inspectors means fewer local people being involved, and less knowledge of the cattle, the people and the landscape, said Bill Hutchinson, a White River, South Dakota rancher, former brand inspector and former SD Stockgrowers Brand Committee chairman.

“When the state took over the program it became more of a state program, that’s when I resigned, as did many local brand inspectors,” Hutchinson said. 

Historically, the brand inspection program was run by the South Dakota Stockgrowers’ Association, which reported to the Brand Board. In 2008, the state did not renew the brand inspection contract with the Stockgrowers, and it is now a government-operated program under the umbrella of the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources for reporting purposes. The brand programs are self-funded through fees and brand registrations. The Brand Board does not receive any general fund appropriations.

Those local inspectors knew their neighbors, knew the cattle, and would often hear through the grapevine if so-and-so was missing something or if there had been suspicious activity, Hutchinson said. “I think some of those would-be thieves knew better than to take one or two head because they knew we’d likely notice when we were helping our neighbors brand or work cattle.” Now, with some brand inspectors traveling to unfamiliar territory, they just don’t have the local connection that can be helpful.

Hutchinson thinks the number of stolen cattle is likely far higher than is reported. “A lot of people don’t report stolen cattle, for a variety of reasons,” he said. “Maybe they are embarrassed, or they don’t want people thinking they don’t watch their cattle very closely, or maybe they filed a report at one time and didn’t get much help,” he said.

Matt Kammerer of Rapid City, the current South Dakota Stockgrowers Association brand committee chairman attended a recent Brand Board meeting.

His attendance at the meeting and his comments to TSLN are not on behalf of the Stockgrowers, however.

“I went to the meeting representing myself. I’m interested in the program,” said the former inspector. Kammerer said an individual in his neighborhood was found to have branded five head of cattle one year that all belonged to neighbors, then another time he kept two cows Kammerer was pasturing. After the cows calved, the individual in question branded the calves with his own brand. Even though it was “obvious” because the calves were a different color than the rest, and the cows were branded with the owner’s brand, legal action was never taken against the man, he said.

That individual has been caught three times, said Kammerer, and yet “nothing happened,” said Kammerer

Kammerer is concerned about the firing of Scott Hicks, the 39 year inspector who was recently let go.

“It’s getting very concerning to me what’s going on with the Brand Board,” he said.

Kammerer believes the new inspection manager ought to have inspecting experience.

The meeting was enlightening and well-run, he said. He learned how the board handles holds. “I think the people on the Brand Board are good people,” said Kammerer. “There isn’t anyone I object to being on that board, but I think maybe the brand owners ought to be able to decide who is on that board. Maybe we should have districts to spread it out. Since we have three members from one county (Meade) and two members from an adjacent county, (Pennington) we need broader representation,” he said.

“It’s the brand inspection dollars paying for the program. Why is the governor getting to pick the representatives?” he asked.

Trapp, who oversees the day-to-day operations in the office, said producers should report missing livestock to their local sheriffs immediately. She said when they file a report with the Brand Board, they will be asked if they would like an investigator to follow up.

Trapp said the brand office follows a protocol when missing livestock are reported.

“When a missing livestock report is received, the information is sent out to the South Dakota Sheriff’s association, to brand inspectors, and livestock investigators. This is the process regardless of where the livestock are reported missing from. …if livestock are reported missing from tribal ground, the livestock owner is also advised to report the missing livestock to tribal law enforcement and the FBI as these agencies have jurisdiction on tribal ground. At the end of the month, all the individual reports are compiled into a monthly report and sent out,” she said.

“Every case is different; we work with local law enforcement and not everyone calls us back when they find (missing) stock. We notify local brand inspectors and sale barns,” said Trapp.

South Dakota lieutenant governor Larry Rhoden said they are taking steps to help producers and are working to find ways to provide relief for theft victims. “I would suggest they (producers who have lost livestock) continue reaching out to the Brand Board. We are working to make it as user friendly as possible for the folks that are using those programs.” 

Hutchinson said brand inspection and theft investigation are crucial services for producers, and in order to be effective, they must be done correctly. He said he appreciates the brand inspectors, who work hard to find strayed and stolen cattle. He said it is often a thankless job and, that in order for the program to work efficiently, both investigators and inspectors are needed.

Hutchinson added that many theft cases are not cut and dried – there are many gray areas such as neighbor disputes, divorce situations, family feuds, share deals gone bad, and more. Inspectors and investigators must be savvy to understand and dig deep to get details on these situations to better understand each unique case.

Some ranchers say they’ve not been satisfied with the South Dakota Brand Board’s response to missing cattle reports. The board recently hired a new interim investigator and is in the process of hiring a permanent investigator and inspection manager. Heather Hamilton-Maude for Tri-State Livestock News

But some cases truly are a matter of a cattle rustler driving away with a trailer load of calves or yearlings that they loaded in the pasture or out of the corral – and these situations need to be investigated as well.

Livestock theft is a huge financial burden for producers, he said. “Investigators need to be serious about investigating.”

Hutchinson said better coordination between the Brand Board would help with theft cases. He said that the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, in recent years, has tried to build those lines of communication. Williams said the Brand Board office has been working with the states attorneys offices statewide to improve cooperation.

Liz May ranches near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and has some tribal allotments. She’s also a grocery store owner and District 27 legislative representative. She says more needs to be done to support the state’s number one industry. “It’s a broken system, it’s time the Brand Board members are elected by producers and ranchers instead of appointed by the governor,” she said

Hutchinson would also like to see the brand board members elected by those who pay inspection fees. Neither Hutchinson nor May shared concerns about the current board members other than the fact that they are geographically concentrated.

 “Although the program might need some tune-ups, throwing it away is not the solution,” Hutchinson said. “The program can be fixed, and needs to be fixed, for the sake of the cattle industry.”