Colorado cattle rustling’s colorful history helps modern brand inspectors keep up with a changing crime

Hundreds of cattle go missing every year in Colorado, most of them simply lost. But the state’s brand inspectors work to ensure thieves don’t cash in.


Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun

Apr 8, 2019


GREELEY — Amid clanging gates and lowing cattle, Terry Florian steps into a crowded pen and begins a subtle dance among the livestock, carefully stepping around and between their churning hooves to catch a glimpse of the brands burned into their hides.


He and his fellow brand inspectors circulating outside the sale barn will cull through more than 200 head of dairy and beef cattle this April morning before they go on the auction block. By cross referencing brands and ownership papers they ensure that the transactions are legitimate, and discourage an age-old scourge of the American West — cattle rustlers.


Though not the pervasive issue it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, cattle theft remains a sporadic problem in Colorado. As recently as December, an Aurora rancher discovered that more than 50 from his herd had been run off his property and, it appeared, loaded onto a truck. Although the case remains under investigation, the animals haven’t been recovered.


Rustling represents an even more troubling practice in some neighboring states. Five years ago, Kansas created a livestock and brand investigation unit under the state attorney general’s office specifically to address cattle theft. Oklahoma officials created a special law enforcement unit to pursue both cattle and farm machinery thefts and reduce losses in that state’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry.


More than 2.8 million head of cattle across Colorado rank the state 10th in the nation and fuel a more than $2 billion annual economy that fluctuates with the commodities markets. That makes the state’s far-flung herds an attractive target of opportunity, as stolen cattle — if they remain undetected when they’re brought to market — yield the same price as legal cattle.


And it explains why Florian and nearly 70 other brand inspectors throughout the state take note of cattle markings and documentation. Those tools, along with an industry in which the key players develop familiarity with one another, make Colorado a difficult place to unload stolen livestock.


“It’s fairly well cut and dried,” Florian says of the process.


State brand commissioner Chris Whitney notes that the markets themselves, like this sale barn on the northern edge of town, play the biggest role in discouraging rustlers. With his inspectors checking the livestock prior to auction — and holding any money if they have questions about ownership — turning stolen cattle in cash becomes a risky business.


“We want to have choke points where, if you stole an animal, it’s going to be hard to monetize it,” Whitney says. “The idea is to make it uncomfortable and not remunerative — and potentially dangerous — to be in the stealing business.”


But even keeping a close eye on livestock sales doesn’t prevent Colorado ranchers from experiencing their share of losses. Annual reports of missing or stolen livestock — the vast majority being cattle — average a little over 100, with losses ranging from a little over 400 to more than 650 head over the past four years. But that’s where the numbers get a little fuzzy.


Cattle often roam over vast expanses of pasture land, and some go missing temporarily and turn up later, having wandered into a neighbor’s grazing land or just some remote or hard-to-spot location. Others die on the range never to be found. Ranchers generally anticipate losses of about 2% of their herd.


But some go missing under more suspicious circumstances, notes Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.


“They’re a fairly valuable commodity, and honestly they’re not that hard for a skilled person to steal,” he says. “We’ve seen some groups of cattle go missing over the last couple, three years. It would appear, because they’re in groups, that it’s not incidental in the sense that one goes missing. It’s a little bit organized.”


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