SALMON, Idaho Cattle rustlers, casting aside saddle and spurs for modern horsepower, are roaming the West with four-wheel drive and GPS technology in a resurgence of livestock thievery considered a hanging offense on the old frontier.
State livestock officials said the increase in cattle crimes was linked to the slumping economy, soaring beef prices and the advent of handheld global positioning systems that allow rustlers to more easily navigate the wide-open range.
They said contemporary thieves may find it more convenient and lucrative to pick off a couple cows, worth as much as $2,000 a head, than to rob a convenience store.
"When the market is extremely high, the bad guys come out," Idaho State Brand Inspector Larry Hayhurst said.
Hayhurst said the incidence of cattle gone missing under suspicious circumstances in Idaho during the past three months had already surpassed the 250 such reports he received for all of last year. That coincides with spikes in cattle thefts in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming and elsewhere.
Regionwide tallies for rustling are hard to come by because no uniform reporting system or central database exists.
However, Western state livestock agencies have put the value of cattle deemed lost, stolen, strayed or in questionable ownership in recent years in the tens of millions of dollars.
In Montana alone, investigators have recovered more than 7,300 stolen or missing cattle worth nearly $8 million during the past three years, numbers believed to account for just a fraction of the problem, officials said.
"What you see as far as figures from livestock departments is a drop in the bucket from what's been going on," said Kim Baker, president of the Montana Cattlemen's Association.
RIDING THE BRAND
For ranchers in the open-range states of the West, the livestock brand -- a symbol of ownership imprinted on the animal's hide -- is considered a cow's only return address.
Brands provide vital clues for Western agricultural inspectors who are required to verify ownership of livestock when it is sold, shipped for slaughter or transported over certain distances.
But in a region where several hundred brand inspectors oversee millions of cows on rangelands stretching across some of the nation's most rugged and remote terrain, there are many ways to beat the system, said Rick Wahlert, veteran brand inspector with the Colorado Agriculture Department.
Today's rustlers bear little resemblance to the varmints of yore, whose crimes prompted the formation in the western United States of cattle associations that paid a bounty to bring cow thieves to justice.
For starters, rustlers are now equipped with trucks and trailers that allow them to easily haul cattle to distant slaughterhouses and auction barns where re-branded animals may draw less suspicion.
Western livestock owners who turn their cows out in the spring on sprawling grazing allotments they lease from the federal government expect to lose up to 3 percent of their stock to injuries, illnesses and predators.
But any such losses, or any missing animals suspected of having been stolen, typically go unnoticed until late fall, when ranchers gather in their herds and sort out which animals will be kept for breeding, put up for sale or go to slaughter.
Moreover, cattle can end up categorized as lost or missing, rather than stolen, even though evidence may suggest theft, said Terry Fankhauser, vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association.
"We're ruling out alien abduction," he said.
Theft costs ranchers dearly in an industry that generates billions of dollars in revenues a year in Western states.
The losses are not tallied in dollars alone. Producers build up their herds while selecting for preferred traits over the course of generations, said Wyatt Prescott, vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association.
"Cows are professional mothers," he said. "It's their job to get bred every year, calve successfully and bring that calf home in the fall. You go through a lot trying to replace that cow."
The recent comeback in cattle rustling has stockmen on edge across the region.
After 200 cattle went missing last year in a four-county area of western Idaho, Tom Blessinger, a rancher north of Boise, said he was writing down the license plate numbers of any unfamiliar vehicles he sees.
"That's a lot of meat," he said. "This isn't a case of the cowboy with the good horse and the dog. This is too many."
Authorities in Montana and Nevada last month broke up a multi-state cattle-rustling ring in an investigation expected to bring criminal charges against suspects in Oregon, Nevada and Washington state, said Blaine Northrop, enforcement supervisor with the Nevada Department of Agriculture. The livestock bust has so far netted 61 head of cattle.
Officials said livestock thieves typically know how to handle animals and how to elude the industry's safeguards.
"Just anybody off the street can't walk in and steal a cow," Idaho's Prescott said.
Once snatched, cows are hard to get back. Recovery rates for stolen cattle can be as low as 10 percent.
Two years after the fact, authorities are still searching for rustlers who stole 21 cows and an equal number of calves from the Cross Ranch in northwestern Montana, and owner Mary Cross said her operation continues to suffer the effects of the thefts.
"It takes the profit right out," she said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)