On the lookout for cattle rustlers

  • Photo 1 of 12

    Cattle are sent back to pasture after the completion of the branding.

    - Rajah Bose

  • Photo 2 of 12

    Jayne Collins runs Ranchhand Hardware in downtown Jordan Valley when she's not ranching. A few winters ago Collins and her husband lost 100 head of cattle and have not been able to recover financially since.

    - Rajah Bose

  • Photo 3 of 12

    Deputy Sheriff Bob Wroten patrols thousands of acres of backcountry ranch land in Eastern Oregon looking for suspicious signs that may be clues in the disappearance of cattle. Wroten and others suspect that they are being stolen as each can fetch up to $1,500.

    - Rajah Bose

  • Photo 4 of 12

    Deputy Sheriff Bob Wroten shows the brand of a local ranch, and the small differences that can be hard to spot.

    - Rajah Bose

  • Photo 5 of 12

    Malheur County Deputy Sheriff Bob Wroten catches up on office work from his base station in Jordan Valley, Oregon.

    - Rajah Bose

  • Photo 6 of 12

    Everyone lends a hand as wood is split for the branding fire in the same way they did it a century ago. Though technology is improving, a hot iron brand is still the only sure way to mark a rancher's property.

    - Rajah Bose

  • Photo 7 of 12

    Rancher Martin Thompson still does things the old fashion way - by branding his calves the same way they did a century ago.

    - Rajah Bose

  • Photo 8 of 12

    A calf is branded under the boot of cowhand Fred Robertson.

    - Rajah Bose

  • Photo 9 of 12

    Cowhand Fred Robertson brands a calf during an head and hoofs branding on the Thompson Ranch outside of Burns, Ore.

    - Rajah Bose

  • Photo 10 of 12

    Young calves and their mothers await the branding iron during a branding on the Thompson Ranch outside of Burns, Ore.

    - Rajah Bose

  • Photo 11 of 12

    Rancher Martin Thompson watches with blood-stained hands after castrating a few dozen calves.

    - Rajah Bose

  • Photo 12 of 12

    Martin Thompson ropes up a stray calf and takes him out to pasture after completing the branding on his ranch outside of Burns, Ore.

    - Rajah Bose


Bill Radke: Across the American West, there are "Wanted" posters tacked up, offering rewards -- up to $60,000. The offense? Cattle rustling in the high desert range. It is a very costly crime that's very old and very much alive. And to fight it, law enforcement is teaming up across the state lines from Washington to Nevada.

From the Northwest News Network, correspondent Anna King has our story.

Anna King: Jordan Valley is in southeastern Oregon -- just a couple miles from the Idaho border.

Cows mooing

The rangeland here is vast. No fences, just expanses of purple sage.

It's easier than you might think to steal cattle. Herds range for months at a time, over thousands of miles. Jayne Collins and her husband run a medium-sized cattle operation here with about 700 head. Business had been pretty good, and they were thinking about retirement.

Jayne Collins: We were gonna quit working so hard -- we're both 60.

But a few years ago, Collins and her husband lost 100 pregnant cows and their peace of mind. Each animal is money on legs. Cattle can be worth about $1,500 each.

Collins: When this thing happened -- and we were sure that these cattle were stolen -- I haven't had a full night sleep since then.

It's not clear who's taking these cattle. But most locals think it's a highly organized group familiar with this backcountry. Collins worries it might even involve some of her neighbors.

One man on the trail is Sheriff Deputy Bob Wroten.

Sound of police siren

He's chasing a semi load of cattle down a two-lane country highway. When he eventually catches up to the driver, paperwork shows the shipment is legit. Wroten and one other law enforcement officer are based in Jordan Valley. They're responsible for regularly patrolling 6,000 square miles of range. But cattle theft is tough to prove unless you can catch a rustler in the act.

Bob Wroten: It's just hard to fathom how they can get away. They just disappear.

Calves mooing

We're at a ranch two hours west near Burns, Ore. Cattlemen say they'd use anything that'd help protect their herds. But even with technology, cowboys here say microchips can be cut out and ear tags can be ripped out. The cowboys say sometimes the best security method is something that's really old -- branding.

Sounds of fire crackling, calves mooing

The owner of this ranch is Martin Thompson. He says cattle ranching is already stressful nowadays, even without the added burden of thieves.

Martin Thompson: The work part's not any harder. It's just margins are slimmer. You know, just tougher. Less room for mistakes.

To battle the bandits, some ranches have hired full-time guards that live and camp with the cattle. And back in Jordan Valley, Deputy Sheriff Bob Wroten is stepping up his patrols. He's hired a plane to fly over the range more often. He says fewer cattle have been stolen this year because of the extra attention.

Wroten: We've been to court with three different cases. And now, they all know that we are flying every other day or as often as we can. I think it's going to quit until they feel safe in doing it again.

Wroten says these crimes are as old as the West. And some places -- like the high desert of eastern Oregon - are still wild.

In Jordan Valley, Ore. I'm Anna King for Marketplace.


I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...