CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Cattle rustling is slowly increasing in Wyoming amid rising beef prices and shrinking herds.
Jimmy Dean Siler, a Wyoming Livestock Board investigator, estimates five cases of missing cattle have been reported this year, compared with one or two in an average year.
"That may not sound like a lot, but to us that's significant," he said.
A 50- to 100-pound calf can sell for up to $375, compared with $100 in 2000, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported Friday (http://tinyurl.com/ov2xekn).
"Nationally, we have the smallest cow herd that we've had in 60 years," said Ann Wittmann, executive director of the Wyoming Beef Council. "It's significant. So, of course, that makes those animals more valuable, and what's adding to that is consumer demand is still very positive."
Rustlers frequently steal one or two cattle at a time, making the thefts look like natural losses, Siler said.
"Usually, the ranchers will write those off as predators or winter kill or something like that," Siler said. "What we're trying to do is get the education out there that if you're missing just one or two calves, and if you can't find any remains ... we're trying to get them to at least report it so we can get some numbers together."
Ranchers near Wyoming's borders are most vulnerable to rustlers because stolen cattle can be quickly moved into another state, Siler said.
"And by the time they notice and file a report with us, quite a few months have gone by and it's become a cold case," he said.
Because most stolen cattle end up being someone's meal, it can be difficult to track down individual thefts once the trail is cold.
Wyoming has only four livestock investigators, and they also look into brand, health and quarantine violations as well as theft.
Cattle rustling is a felony and can bring a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Judges tend to take the crime seriously, Siler said.
"I've seen drug dealers not get as good a sentence as we would on a rustler," he said. "But if you ask any local, it (should be) hanging."