65 head missing

65 head missing

 

Out of 1,300 animals turned out last year, 65 are still missing in action, and cattle rustling seems the likely culprit.

Grazing the forestry leases is always a bit of risky business. These areas are wild – there are wolves, cougars and both black and grizzly bears. And these places are tame – sometimes too tame – when summer visitors come out to play, fences can be broken and gates left open. Of course, just like people, cattle can become sick or lost, and last year’s flooding was hard on critters and on the fences that help keep them safe.

But despite all those risks, no one expects to round up their cattle before the fall run and find 65 head missing. Yet that’s precisely what happened to the 11 producers in the North Fork Grazing Association.

“It’s amazing the number of animals we’re talking about,” said Bob Westrop, a Pincher Creek rancher and one of the affected producers.

Westrop says they typically do lose some animals to predation and disease every year, but that number is usually in the mid teens. Even if 15 head were lost to normal risk factors, that still means 50 head out of the 1,300 turned out are unaccounted for. Seven carcasses have been found so far – in line with what would be expected in a normal year. The missing includes 11 cow-calf pairs and the remainder were yearlings – primarily heifers. After months of searching for the animals, cattle rustling seems the likely cause.

The missing animals have been reported to Livestock Identification Services, and the RCMP. They were all branded and outfitted with CCIA tags. So far, nothing has turned up.

The area in question covers two townships. Normally, they begin rounding up the animals at the end of September and through October.

“That’s when we realized we had a problem. In the forestry, there isn’t someone at each end checking to see what’s coming in and going out,” Westrop said, noting that someone intent on rustling the cattle may not be noticed. “If they watch our rider, and he goes north, then they know he’s gone all day. And no one in there that’s random camping has a clue if they see a horse trailer go in and load cattle. I doubt that they’d take a liner, but they could take a trailer and make a few trips.”

Unwilling to give up, they kept searching the area, scouring the tough terrain for any clue. More than $2,000 was spent on helicopter fuel to fly the area.

“They flew everywhere and there’s not a sign of them,” Westrop said.

Their grazing lease is in the forestry west of Highway 22, about 20 miles north of Highway No. 3. Signs are posted asking people to keep an eye out for cattle theft, complete with numbers to phone to report suspicious activity. The other two closest grazing associations did not suffer any unusual losses.

With the value of cattle and beef on the rise, there is more motivation for the unscrupulous to rustle. Although it may seem difficult to imagine someone getting away with stealing so many animals, it’s not impossible – especially if they are destined to move out of the province.

“Maybe they go to Manitoba where there’s no brand inspection, or maybe they go to northern Saskatchewan. Most of these were heifers, so they could just turn ‘em out and breed them and they’ve got a cow herd without ever having to invest in one,” Westrop said. “I am sure these guys are smart enough to cut those CCIA tags out. And then if they rebrand them and sell them five years from now, who knows whether someone will pick up the first brand, or they make up a sale slip saying they bought some from whoever.”

 “Obviously something extraordinary has happened. I would suspect we’re in the range of 40 animals that could have been stolen,” said Jim Lynch-Staunton, who ranches north of Lundbreck, and is treasurer of the North Fork Grazing Association.

This year, the North Fork Grazing Association is trying a new approach. They’re going to use a third tag on their cattle – an ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tag.

“It’s a new adaptation of an older technology. The traditional RFID tag is a low frequency tag and the benefits are that it will read through mud and hair and beef, but it only reads up to maybe a foot away. The UHF tags will read from much further away, but they require less interference,” said Lynch-Staunton. “The company we are working with has developed an active UHF tag that has its own power source and it can be read up to 10 miles away.”

The tags, coupled with a mobile reader, can be used to scan for the cattle throughout the grazing season. Although it can’t prevent theft, the tags are associated with individual animals, so they will be able to figure out which animals are missing, and approximatley when they went missing.

“It will be like a surveying tool so you can just drive an ATV or an airplane or car in a valley and it will specifically locate tags as it goes along because it will triangulate their location if it reads one specific tag three or four times. And so we are hoping with that we can either hire an airplane to do an aerial survey or use the existing forestry helicopters to hitch a ride and get a survey of where our cattle are at any specific point in time.”

Tag Smyth, the company the association is partnering with, has already been working with Pole Haven Community Pasture in the Cardston area to develop the new technology. North Fork’s project is being 70 per cent funded by Growing Forward 2.

Lynch-Staunton says that initially he thought the cattle might just be lost, but after putting in so much time searching for them, he’s reconsidering.

“We were searching for them madly. It is possible they’re still out there somewhere, but it’s unlikely. Now I’m thinking it was probably thievery, but back then I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said, adding that incredulous producers across the province are catching wind of what happened and calling him to confirm the improbably large number missing cattle. “Everyone’s jaw just drops when they learn it’s true.”

Cattle rustling seems to have been increasing in recent years, and a hot spot has been in the sparsely-populated southeast corner of the province. The Western Stock Growers’ Association has a standing offer of a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any person stealing livestock from one of their members.

There’s no way to guard cattle 24 hours a day, but producers can take measures to reduce the risk. Only half of Alberta cattle are branded, but a clear brand can be a great tool to help brand inspectors identify a problem. Brand inspectors in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan work closely together, and confer with brand inspectors in the United States as well. Producers should consider locking gates leading to and between pastures to discourage trespassing and theft. Signage can also be placed to warn of no trespassing, crime watch areas and even of video monitoring. Motion-activated field cams hidden near the most likely loading zones can be effective as well and can take quality photos even at night. As well, using CCIA tags to their full potential by recording the individual tags for individual animals can help trace them back later.

The North Fork Grazing Association is hoping to meet with the southern RCMP member in charge of livestock crime to go over the case, and possibly generate some leads. Westrop still holds hope that they’ll figure out the mystery one day.

“Somebody has to know something. Somebody must have seen something.”

By Sheri Monk