Ranchers offer reward; thieves 'aren't outsiders'
JORDAN VALLEY, Ore. (AP) -- They were spotted from a small airplane, two cattle rustlers on horseback hazing 125 white-faced cows across Malheur County's forbidding empty quarter in Oregon's far southeast corner.
The men, sighted last spring, were pushing the stolen herd south through a high-desert tapestry of chaparral, manzanita, juniper and sagebrush. They looked like ordinary cowboys.
The pilot descended for a closer view but the men didn't look up, said brand inspector Rodger Huffman of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The pilot finally had to break away, and the Malheur County Sheriff's Office didn't hear about the sighting until a week later.
It was one of the few glimpses anyone has caught of men suspected of stealing 1,240 cattle worth $1.2 million over the past three years from Malheur County ranches. Hundreds more cows have been taken in neighboring areas of Idaho and Nevada.
What makes these thieves unusual, investigators said, is the scale and duration of their operations, their use of horses to reach areas inaccessible to car or truck, and the fact that they sometimes drive their plundered herds for days, carefully sweeping around ranches and people.
Ranchers are circulating wanted posters offering a $47,500 reward for information that leads to a conviction. Some are also spending spare time on horseback, ATVs and in pickups and airplanes trying to hunt the rustlers down, Malheur County undersheriff Brian Wolfe said.
Malheur County sheriff's deputy Bob Wroten and others suspect the thefts are the work of one group of four to six men who are well-acquainted with the territory.
"The way these cattle are ending up missing, those guys grew up tough," he said. "They lived the life all their lives. They aren't outsiders."
The losses have been devastating. Most of the stolen cattle were females that each year produce calves worth $600 apiece.
About 20 Oregon ranches have been hit, with a dozen taking the brunt of losses, Huffman said. In Humboldt County in Nevada, at least 500 cattle are missing, and still more have been stolen in Owyhee County in Idaho.
The rustlers' theater of operations is roughly bounded by Oregon's 30-mile-long Steens Mountain to the west, Winnemucca, Nev., to the south and Murphy, Idaho, to the east. After stealing a herd, the gang sometimes moves across 50 miles of Oregon desert into Idaho, then Nevada.
"Finally, they get them to a place far enough away and move them into a semi-truck and away they go," Malheur County Sheriff Andrew Bentz said. "They may end up four states away from us."
Investigators don't know what's being done with the cows but said Nebraska and Oklahoma don't have brand inspectors to make sure cows are with their owners.
On the rare occasion when someone spots the thieves in the desert, the men usually appear to be cowhands out riding for a few hours, Deputy Wroten said. They're never seen with bedrolls on their saddles or halters on their horses, he said, probably to avoid signaling that they plan to camp and picket their horses.
Complicating matters, the cattle sometimes aren't discovered missing for months. Some ranchers still haven't gathered all their cows for winter and don't know if any are gone, Undersheriff Wolfe said. Ranchers also sometimes have too much pride to report a theft.
"People not in the cattle industry don't understand how big a hit this is for the rancher," Kilgore said. "It really hurts."
Like Wroten, Kilgore thinks that if he catches the rustlers, he won't be slapping handcuffs on complete strangers.