An unusually high number of calves missing from Gravelly Mountain Range following summer grazing
Posted on December 3, 2014 by Abigail Dennis
In an easily accessible mountain range like the Gravelly Mountains, where livestock producers graze cattle on summer Forest Service allotments, integrity is key. Producers rely on the integrity of people driving the Gravelly Range Road not to mess with their cattle.
This year, multiple ranches from the Madison and Ruby valleys that graze their cattle in the Gravellys are missing a surprising number of calves.
“We had no idea we were going to be out that many calves until we started gathering them,” Twin Bridges rancher Rick Sandru said. “It seems like it must be two-legged predators.”
The two-legged predators Sandru is referring to are cattle rustlers. Cattle rustling is the term used to describe stealing cattle in the American west.
The Madison County Livestock Protective Committee is currently offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of cattle rustlers in the area. Livestock protective committees were originally formed in eastern Montana when the area was struggling with excessive cattle rustling, Sandru explained. In recent years there has been less evidence of rustling so the protective committees have been used to battle any threat to the livestock industry – lately, Madison County’s protective committee has focused its attention on predators.
Department of Livestock crime investigator Dan Bugni said he has not received any calls with information since the reward was offered.
“We felt offering a reward would be a good way to raise awareness,” said Neil Barnosky, a Sheridan rancher who is also part of the livestock protective committee. “A lot of people recreate (in the Gravelly Mountain Range) all summer long, so if rustling is what is happening up there, more eyes looking for things out of the usual is a good thing.”
Jeffers rancher Gary Clark, another member of the protective committee, said he has heard rumblings of unusual loss from Madison Valley producers who run cattle in the Gravelly Mountain Range, but not from those who keep cattle on the east side of the Madison River.
“If they’re losing that many cattle, I think there’s something going on,” Clark said. “If the wolves were getting them, they would be finding some evidence of carcasses or something.”
Montana Board of Livestock member and Jeffers resident John Scully said he is “aware” there have been significant losses this year.
“Because the Gravellys are so accessible, it’s hard to believe (the calves) weren’t picked up by a third party,” Scully said.
Scully said any producer who believes they have been the victim of cattle rustling should immediately contact the Department of Livestock in Helena – Scully said to both call and email the department.
“The department can investigate it,” Scully explained. “It’s also important they notify neighboring states. This is pure speculation, but it’s likely the calves would go to market in Idaho or Wyoming if there is a third party involved.”
Former Sheridan rancher and Madison County commissioner Dave Schulz said cattle prices are at an all-time high this year, which may be the reason the producers are out so many calves this year as opposed to previous years.
“It’s more of a concern this year than it was two or three years ago,” Schulz said. “A 600 pound calf at $2.50 a pound is worth $1,500. So if you manage to slip into the backcountry and round three of those critters up, you’ve just made yourself $4,500.”
Cattle rustling is a felony theft, according to Madison County Attorney Chris Christensen. The theft of any commonly domesticated hooved animal can result in a fine of no less than $5,000 but not to exceed $50,000, imprisonment in the state prison for a term not to exceed 10 years or both, Christensen said.
Scully agreed with Schulz, adding that people may be willing to gamble on cattle rustling just because prices are so high.
“It’s a big hit, there’s not doubt about it,” Scully said. “Whoever is doing it knows exactly what they are doing.”
Or, like Sandru says, “good cattle prices don’t help you much if you don’t have an animal to sell.”
Bugni covers the west half of Madison County and all of Beaverhead County, including the Gravelly Mountain Range.
“It’s tough to say when you consider the wolf aspect,” Bugni said, explaining if he thinks rustling is on the uptick this year. “I do think potential for theft is there because cattle prices are so high, people are a lot more willing to put their lives on the line and risk a felony.”
Producers who have lost cattle have all but ruled out a predator problem. In 2010, Sandru said the area suffered from a wolf issue – the missing calves that year were explainable because the ranchers found evidence of kills.
“We found body parts all summer long,” Sandru said. “This time, there was none of that.”
Barnosky emphasized that there is no evidence of rustlers in the area, but said predator issues usually leave clear signs – dead or wounded cattle.
“There’s always loss – loss that you know about,” Barnosky said. “Then there’s unaccounted for loss. Unaccounted for loss happens every year; it’s rough country up there. But this is more loss than ever.”