How many cattle in Idaho are rustled?

How many “predator killed” cattle were actually stolen?

We all know the story — the “horrible wolves killed the cattle. They were so hungry that not even a piece of bone was left as evidence.”  The same has been said of cougar and bear.

In the many years I have roamed the range, I often travel in my truck for a day on backroads and see no one, lots of cattle, but no person, certainly not someone who might watch after them. If I had a big truck (or better a trailer to haul a few) and a friend, we could round up a few and drive off with little fear.

The old joke is that lots of cattle owners with public land grazing permits to remote areas employ the “Christopher Columbus method of herding” — turn them loose in May and ‘discover’ them in October.”  In meantime, a month or more may pass with no one checking the cattle.  As a result, some fail to be discovered and others, figures not released, are rustled.  Cattle owners have a strong incentive not to talk much about rustling. First of all, it will give those with a tendency towards such criminal acts incentive to do it because they hear how easy it is. Secondly, if they blame predators, they might get compensation through some public or private program.

The introduction of microchips in cattle might reduce the incidence of rustling and provide some figures on how common it is.  If there were more actual cowboys out with the cattle, all kinds of bad things that happen to them would decline.  But then, owner’s economic calculations probably say that their losses are not great enough to pay a cowboy or two.

KTVB television just did a much needed story on the matter of rustling in Idaho. Cattle rustling in Idaho on the rise. By Natalie Podgorski. KTVB television. Channel 7.





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  1. Ken Cole Avatar

    For years the livestock industry has been saying wolves are going to destroy the livestock industry in the West but the numbers just aren’t working out for them to make that claim. Let’s take Idaho for example, according to another article from Reuters today, during the last 3 months Idaho State Brand Inspector Larry Hayhurst has received 250 reports of cattle going missing under “suspicious circumstances” while the IDAHO WOLF MANAGEMENT UPDATE October 2011 says that wolves have only taken 68 cattle during the 11 month period from January 1st – October 31st.  It seems that the livestock industry has bigger problems than wolves.

    It seems that every time a wolf kills anything the press comes running to write two stories about it.  Meanwhile politicians and the livestock industry scream about how the lifestyle of the rancher is coming to an end.   When this issue is looked at rationally, things are much different and other issues seem vastly more important.

    1. Bob Avatar

      Your right cattle industry has lots of problems and we just want the right to deal with each problem. Only now with the wolf delisted can we deal with the wolf problem. It probably will never be as big as problem as rustling. Yet with rustling you have a chance of recovery.

      1. Daniel Berg Avatar
        Daniel Berg

        Wasn’t one of the points of this article that rustled cattle are almost never recovered?

      2. Daniel Berg Avatar
        Daniel Berg


        Come to think of it, what would stop a fellow from rustling a steer, bringing it home, butchering it, then repeating the process when they run out of meat? There are plenty of folks in rural areas who could pull something like that off. If there are that many people willing to take the risk of poaching wildlife, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch for someone to take the intiative fill their freezer with someone else’s beef.

        1. Brian Ertz Avatar

          Sustenance rustling is all about the right tools. 🙂

          1. Daniel Berg Avatar
            Daniel Berg

            Ha! Well played….

          2. Nancy Avatar

            Precious Brian.

            I’ve got a couple of old, out buildings right here on my place that wouldn’t take any time at all to convert, given how many cows are loose and wandering by…although, its my responsibilty to “fence them out” 🙂

        2. Bob Avatar

          The only thing stopping a person is the penalties and poaching a cow has a higher penalty than poaching wildlife for whatever reason. There are people who prefer to poach a beef, taste maybe, and it does happen. One thing I think it’s easier to catch a human stealing over catching a wolf stealing.

          1. Daniel Berg Avatar
            Daniel Berg


            Have you ever caught a rustler? If you have, I’d love get the story if you don’t mind.

          2. Bob Avatar

            No stories I live in a tight community where everyone watches each others back. Rustling still happens on a small scale way smaller than our losses to four legged predators. Could bore you with a long list of reasons for trespassing, but won’t.

  2. Jeff Avatar

    There was an article in the CST today about rustling become more of a problem lately in WY. Tough ecomnomic times coupled with high beef and lamb prices make it more common today.

  3. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Interesting that in the piece, absolutely nothing was mentioned about wolves. I won’t say that wolves have not taken some livestock here and there, but in particular during these tough times, wolves have provided a handy facade behind which rustling can hide.

  4. Nancy Avatar

    I would imagine a lot of these cattle rustlers have already figured out that the best time to snag a few head is at night, when no one is around and fact is, ranchers really don’t get to bent out of shape until a few dozen or so turn up missing at the end of the season.

    Cattle have a way of congregating on roads paved or otherwise – to absorb the heat from the day. (and they are usually too settled in for the night to even think about moving out of your way when you approach them in a vehicle) Lots of those roads are on public lands.

    Wouldn’t take much to round a few head up and be out of the county before morning.

    Though its probably much easier to make a fuss and blame predators for the losses.

  5. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    If the truth were known, most rustling is done by other ranchers. Why butcher one of your own steers when there are so many unattended ones running around out on the range that can be killed and eaten for free?
    They just load up a stray (or two or three) when bringing their own cows home in October.

    1. Savebears Avatar

      “Truth Be Known”

      Larry, how do you know this?

      1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

        When I was growing up, one of our rancher neighbors and his son were caught after having stolen many cattle from other ranchers. They just brought back a few stolen cattle in their stock trailer each time they went out to check on their own.

    2. Larry Thorngren Avatar

      I might add that ranchers are the ones who have the horses and equipment to load up and haul livestock. They also have places to keep stolen cows and know how to dispose of them.

      1. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

        and they have the experience and know-how to pull it off, without a hitch.

  6. Ken Cole Avatar

    “The wolf problem”. I think it’s more of a livestock problem. Wolves aren’t the ones responsible for livestock conflicts, the conflict is the presence of improperly tended livestock. The best way to address those conflicts is by taking better care of those livestock and keeping them out of areas where native predators exist.

    It seems that you believe that ranchers are unable to deal with “the wolf problem” and that your solution is to rid the landscape of wolves willy nilly. I think you have had the ability to deal with these conflicts for a long time but would rather externalize the costs onto wolves and the rest of the public.

    1. Bob Avatar

      Again you think the problem is so simple because you have no experience keeping wolves out of livestock. Previous to delisting we couldn’t even haze or chase wolves because a wolf may be injured. Native predators live in almost all of western Montana yet the wolf is the largest problem for beef producers in our area. We have no problem living with predators that behave themselves and most do behave. You also don’t have a clue what I want just group us all together right. Ranchers are able to deal with the wolf problem the tools work if all the tools are available. Sure some wolves will die and that’s the reality you have to learn to deal with. Since before reintroduction it’s been known there would be hunting and wolf control it’s you and like groups that have been dumping the cost on livestock producers. Let’s be real your solution is to rid the landscape of livestock any way you can.

      1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
        Ralph Maughan


        We have following the recovery and delisting of wolves for 16 years here. Long before delisting, except in Wyoming, livestock owners gained government permission to kill wolves chasing their livestock.

        We wrote many articles about the gradual loosening of restrictions on taking wolves for bothering livestock.

        I know many livestock owners didn’t know this, and I think livestock associations probably did little to get correct information out to their members.

        Now your comment about us trying to get rid of livestock any we can is just damn insulting. How stupid do you think we are? If using wolves to rid the land of livestock was a goal, wolf introduction has got to be the slowest, most inefficient way every conceived of.

        1. Bob Avatar

          I live in the northern recovery zone, but you know where I live, while the wolf was listed we had the most restrictive rules when dealing with wolves. We could take no action that would cause harm to a wolf. When wolves were listed, we had one tool when wolves attack our cattle, call USFWS. You also should know that following this issue for over 16 years. Every time the wolf status change we told our neighbors.
          While I’ve only followed your site for about a year three agendas stand out to me. One: Call for a higher wolf population. Two: Call for a lower livestock population in the RM area. Three: Down play wolves impact on livestock.
          Now you want me to believe the three have nothing to do with each other. Now that is interesting. I take my share of intended insults, I would hope you forgive those who point out a different view. I’ll try to be less insulting in the future.

          1. Immer Treue Avatar
            Immer Treue


            If I can venture on the ledge. I believe there are many here who get you mixed up with another Bob, one who has made himself quite infamous to those of us who think wolves belong.

            In your defense, I remember sitting in on one of the presentations at 2000 International Wolf Symposia with many of the Western Stake holders (ranchers one of them) and many assurances were made (from what I recall)to ranchers such as yourself. Almost 12 years ago…and now that wolves have been delisted, if what you say is correct(I have no reason to doubt),I don’t understand why you should not be able to protect your stock on your land. This, from a pro-wolfer, with a bit of empathy.

  7. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    Regardless of why a cow was lost it will be claimed on taxes as a business loss____BUT_____ if the loss is attributed to predation by wolves, the producer can also be reimbursed for the loss by the numerous public and private welfare programs earmarked for that occuraance. That is a good part of the reason why producers get their panties in a bunch when an investigator will not go along with the “it were wolves is what done it” story line.

    1. Bob Avatar

      If the cow was purchased it can be wrote off as a loss, most replacement cow are not purchased so no business loss. It seems we need a book written that’s newer than Carters. A lot has changed in the last ten years, things have changed. Now there is lots of info out there to show different livestock deaths. Most WS agents see more wolf depredation in a year than Carter saw in his life. It seems it’s your panties that are in a bunch.

      1. JEFF E Avatar
        JEFF E

        Nov.28th, 7:55 pm, Bob Say’s,
        “…..Only now with the wolf delisted can we deal with the wolf problem. It probably will never be as big as problem as rustling. Yet with rustling you have a chance of recovery.”

        (24 hrs later)

        …. and on Nov 29th at 8:04 pm Bob Say’s,”Rustling still happens on a small scale way smaller than our losses to four legged predators.”

        confused much ……Bob.

        One thing is becoming crystal clear, with your every post, it becomes ever more apparent you have no idea what you are talking about, and that includes the livestock industry.

        I know; you’re going to come back and say you meant predators as a whole.


        1. Bob Avatar

          Over all rustling is a bigger problem wolves don’t live everywhere. Where I live rustling isn’t a big problem, wolves are a problem. Depends on where you live and where the wolves live. No confusion on my part.

          1. JEFF E Avatar
            JEFF E

            sure Bob, sure

            it’s your story. you can tell it any way you want

  8. CodyCoyote Avatar

    The 2-Legged Predator never gets the credit it deserves when the livestock industry goes off on missing animals.

    I think with respect to this latest verse in the litany of rustling we need to recall a story that came out in the middle of the year. The various agricultural statistic agencies put out a tally of livestock lost to various causes. They break out losses to causalities such as birthing problems, all manner of diseases, accidents, lightning and other weather calamities , and of course losses due to predators. The reporting agencies are almost always affiliates of state or federal Departments of Agriculture

    What is interesting is the US Fish and Wildlife Service ( Department of Interior) does its best due diligence in verifying losses presumably due to PROTECTED predators , such as wolves and grizzlies , and I would think raptors.

    USFWS agents actually investigate those losses assumed to be wolf kills or bear kills. Agriculture agents take ” phoned in ” reports from the producers and may or more likely not investigate , just tally it. Even Wildlife Services—a USDA ag affiliate agency — is all over the board in investigating vs. tallying livestock losses.

    The issue arises when the Ag people and the USFWS publish the numbers of livestock lost to wolves or grizzlies. They are WILDLY disparate…by a factor of 25 X in some cases. The State of Montana livestock report claims 16 times as many cattle lost to wolves than what USFWS reported and more importantly verified.

    The disparity is likely due to the ” methodology ” of gathering the data at the very least , but to my mind is more due to the producers/stakeholder wanting a lot of lost animals blamed on predators and especially wolves. In the absence of verification and a loose reporting system based on the honor system as much as anything else, we have to take the numbers with a great deal of healthy skepticism. The insinuation on the other end of this disparity might lead one to hypothesize the ranchers don’t even bother to call Fish & Wildlife if they think they have lost a cow to a wolfpack… but they call State Ag instead ?

    I can’t speak for Idaho and Montana , but here in Wyoming if a rancher remotely thinks he has lost cattle to wolves, that is news and it becomes public knowledge. And it does not go unreported to the USFWS wildlife agents.

    So in my opinion based on what I know of livestock reporting it boils down to the livestock producers gaming the system , and that system is wholly compliant to their beck and call . Cattle and sheep lost to ” Unknown” are gratuitously charged back to predators.

    Rustlers are kept in that Unknown category , till they get caught anyway. But every so often the ranchers have to trundle out the Big Bad Rustler to balance the books and keep their accreditation.

    Credibility ? That’s another aspect altogether.

    It’s only rustling if you get caught. But wolves and even grizz are guilty till proven innocent, and that proof of innocence is mighty tough to come by with so many itchy trigger fingers out there….

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      Of course, I agree with what you have written here.

      You did mention lightning as a cause of loss, and I see news today that a Mexican wolf was recently killed that way. It seems logical that cattle and sheep are more likely to be hit by lightning. Among wildlife. bighorn and elk probably get zapped more than other animals. I wonder what the figures are?

      1. CodyCoyote Avatar

        Ralph- back about thirty years or so ago, lightning was responsible for running an entire band of sheep off a cliff on top of Carter Mountain in the Meeteetse Creek drainage 25 miles south of my Cody WY. I recall it vaguely being around 300 sheep. Lightning was the secondary cause in this case, not death by direct electrocution. It was only because there was a herder up there at the time that cause of loss was determined. I recall it only because I knew the rancher who lost them , a family friend.

        Lightning gets it’s grim reaper share of cattle for sure , especially when the cattle bunch up against three strands of barbed wire during a hard squall.

  9. Wolfy Avatar

    Seems to be a nasty part of the the whole cowboy heritage genre that gets little air time… The true life of the cowboys doesn’t stack up to the romantic facade being sold to the public by the livestock industry. Many were criminals escaping the law and stealing cows was (is) easier and cheaper than raising them.

  10. timz Avatar

    If they would hang them like in the old days there may be less rustling.

  11. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

    With the $2000 figure for a head of cattle, isn’t the time ripe to end the $1.35/AUM cow-calf pair subsidy to ranchers on public lands using dwindling Federal tax dollars? Where’s the free market?

    I remember when I lived in Kansas there was a really amazing bunch of rustlers that used ATVs and semis. The ATV-mounted rustlers would herd the cattle into the semis and then they would hit the road, in the mobile butcher shop.

  12. angela nash Avatar
    angela nash

    Gee, I wonder if checking cattle twice a day is enough for you guys…we have ran cattle on the same range for the last 20 years, lost 3 or 4 not 20…the wolf is not innocent as you hope. When a carcass is found there isn’t much left of a calf, more of a full-grown cow. Now they just want to eat calves out of the mama cows and leave the rest…too bad you all don’t understand people that do a good job and really do care.

    The wolf is just doing what they do…hunt/eat/repeat. Who can blame the poor rascals? Hello.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      angela nash,

      I am replying only the basis of the article I wrote, not any comments others might have made.

      1. Checking livestock often provides more safety from predators and theft, illness too
      2. At some point, maybe quickly, the costs of checking outweigh the benefits of checking
      3. Private fenced pasture is safer than public lands which are managed by law for multiple use, meaning that access by all kinds of people with many interests cannot be prevented.
      4. The figures are not at all solid, but it may well be that cattle theft is more of a problem than predation, especially because cows are too big for most predators (as you say it is the calves that are vulnerable)
      5. It is time that rustling gets the public attention it deserves, especially during these hard economic times when there is more incentive for theft.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan