HOOPER, Utah — Cattle rustling, a crime you'd think would be relegated to the history books, is still a thriving business in Utah.
"It is a quick way to make some money, as long as they don’t get caught," said Rodd McDermott, a brand inspector for Utah's Department of Agriculture and Food. "Heck, you get in these remote areas and it’s pretty easy for someone to slide in with a truck and panels and gather a handful of cows or calves."
The Old West crime appears to be going strong in the 21st century. So far this year, the agency has received reports of 129 missing cattle and five missing horses from across the state. In all of 2020, the agency was notified of 120 missing livestock.
What stunned state agriculture officials was the number of livestock killings last year — nearly 50. LeAnn Hunting, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food's animal industry director, attributed some of that to people being outdoors more in the pandemic.
"A number of our public are uneducated on the value of our livestock and our livestock became targets for entertainment. We saw a huge spike in livestock shootings last year," she said.
This year, it's been a little better with two documented livestock killings and four other active cases, Hunting said.
But the number of missing livestock this year is troubling.
"We have 129 head of cattle that are missing and five horses or mules that have been reported missing as well. Significant numbers," said Hunting, who is also a rancher. "We hope to increase our patrols and help these animals return to their rightful owners."
Livestock that's reported missing doesn't necessarily mean they were stolen. With so much of public lands used for grazing, it's entirely possible an animal wandered off and will return later. But livestock can be a potential cash crop with a single head of cattle or a horse worth thousands of dollars.
The penalty for rustling isn't as extreme as it was in the Old West (you could be killed for it) — but it is a serious crime because of the value of the livestock. Cattle and horses cost thousands and prosecutors can charge based on the value of the animal over time. The legislature has gone back and forth in recent years on increasing the severity of the crime.
One thing that helps prevent thefts is required under the law — brands on animals. McDermott said some don't want to brand because a calf might fetch more for its hide, but it helps mitigate thefts. The state's 47 brand inspectors can check at a sale, or a border stop, to help protect against theft.
"In the state of Utah, we have brand inspections required at points of entry, exit and sale," Hunting said.