Working to raise awareness of cattle theft

and prevent losses for Wyoming ranchers.

Cow Thieves’ Paradise Part I

From the Western Ag Reporter, April 15, 2021:

The brand laws in Arizona and the enforcement of them have collapsed. In the last several years, close to 3,000 head of cattle have been stolen from at least 32 individuals. These are conservative numbers. The most recent and noted was the loss of over 400 cows, plus calves and bulls, from noted cowboy Milo Dewitt in Santa Cruz County, as well as an undetermined number from Robert Noon also in Santa Cruz County, and well over a hundred cows with calves from well-known attorney and judge, Tom Kelly, in Yavapai County.

The case of Milo’s missing cattle is a classic example of how these cases are being handled, or not being handled, depending on how you choose to describe them. Milo was told by an independent investigator who is assisting him in the investigation to file a complaint with the Santa Cruz County sheriff’s office. Deputy Pablo Camacho wrote the report. Since then, Milo has phoned the sheriff’s office numerous times requesting information, but he has not been able to get any information from them. He also notified Ron Hirsch, the local livestock brand inspector for the state of Arizona who is an employee of the Arizona Department of Agriculture (AZDA). Ron filed a report. Then Milo, on February 24, drove to Casa Grande to meet with Manny Angulo the chief investigator for the Office of Special Investigations for the Department of Agriculture. At this meeting the investigator admitted to Milo that they were not working on the case. Apparently the sheriff’s office isn’t either.

There are good reasons for this collapse of the Arizona brand department and the increase of cattle theft. Some of these reasons are obvious while others are subtle. Here are some comparisons of the obvious: In 1984 there were 50 brand inspectors statewide, many of whom were old cowboys who knew what they were looking at. Onsite visual inspections were required by law for all cattle sales and movement out of state. Today, much has changed. According to the AZDA website: “When fully staffed Animal Services Division of the Department of Agriculture employs 20 livestock services field staff throughout the state of Arizona. Of this amount, 9 are fulltime AZPOST certified officers, 6 are fulltime inspectors, and 5 are part-time inspectors.” I was recently told they are not fully staffed.

Let’s look at some comparisons with other states. Currently in Wyoming, there are 78 brand inspectors listed on the department’s website. Any cattle that are sold at the ranch or transported across county lines are required to have an onsite inspection by a state inspector. All cattle leaving a feedlot are required to have an onsite inspection. There are no self-inspection books.

In Nevada the state is cut up into four regions. All cattle transported out of a region are required to have an onsite visual inspection made by a brand inspector. All cattle sales are required to have an onsite visual inspection by a brand inspector. All cattle that leave the state are required to have an onsite visual inspection. All cattle leaving a feedlot are required to have an onsite visual inspection by a brand inspector. There are six brand inspectors in Elko County alone. There are no self-inspection books distributed.

New Mexico is divided into 26 districts, and all cattle leaving a district are required to have an onsite visual inspection, as well as all cattle that are sold or leaving the state, including cattle leaving a feedlot. There are no self-inspection books issued. Recently, the state of New Mexico rescinded the self-inspection rule for dairy cattle, and they are now required to have a visual inspection. New Mexico has 58 fulltime brand inspectors and about the same number of part-time inspectors.

In Colorado, a visual inspection done by a brand inspector is required to ship cattle out of a feedlot.

According to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s website, the 30 rangers employed by the ranchers investigate 1,000 agriculture crime cases annually and recover an average of $5 million in stolen cattle and assets annually. This organization is funded by Texas cattle ranchers, they work for the ranchers, and they get results.

The Arizona brand board works for politicians and is underfunded. Results are almost non-existent. In Arizona there hasn’t been $5 million worth of stolen livestock investigated, let alone recovered, by brand inspectors in the last 30 years.

Several years ago, independent agents from outside of Arizona started an investigation into the quagmire of theft and corruption originating in Arizona and overflowing into other states. This investigation has produced a huge volume of evidence that so far has been ignored by Arizona law-enforcement agencies.

Some facts are impossible to ignore. In 2019, Arizona brand inspector Natasja Robbins was accused of stealing a bull that she had actually raised herself. She said she was framed. The case went to criminal court where it was thrown out, but because of the investigation, she lost her job. Buckeye-area resident Bruce Heiden, who has been affiliated with the cattle industry and other agriculture endeavors since the 1960s, said Natasja was terminated because, “She was doing a good job. She was guilty of catching a thief she wasn’t supposed to catch.” Harquahala rancher Jr. Bryan said, “She was the only good brand inspector we had.” Longtime Arizona rancher and farmer Steve Bales said, “She was a very good inspector. I never had a problem with her. I wish the brand department hadn’t let her go.” Arlington rancher and well-known Arizona cowboy Huck Sandsness worked closely with Natasja on several cases in which they investigated suspected stolen livestock, but Natasja was told by the Phoenix office to ignore these cases. Huck said, “Natasja was a good, honest inspector with a lot of common sense, but she was railroaded out of a job.”

Editor’s Note: Next week, Ashurst shares policies in Arizona which are lending to the issue. He also shares notes from his phone calls to the AZDA.