Editor's note: This article originally ran on Jan. 31, 2010.
Where a city person sees a herd of generic cattle, Lynn Gibson sees breeds, brands, earmarks and tags identifying each cow and its owner.
Ownership has become an issue in the 2,800 square miles he roams as an Idaho brand inspector. Cattle rustling, a crime usually associated with the Old West, is alive and well there.
A mirror of hard times, rustling is thought to be responsible for the disappearance of more than 2,000 cows in Oregon, Nevada and Idaho since 2007. Other neighboring states have reported smaller losses.
In Idaho, the hot spot is the Indian Valley area, part of Gibson's two-county territory. Rustlers are suspected of stealing more than 300 cows worth more than $250,000 there in two years.
"It's almost impossible to catch them at it, " he says. "It's not like a busted window. Somebody breaks your window, you know it. You don't have to break a window to steal a cow. It can be plumb out of the country before you even know it's missing."
Idaho is one of 12 states that employ brand inspectors like Gibson, who ensure that brands are legally registered and the animals bearing them are in the possession of their registered owners. All 12 are in the West.
"They can get away without inspectors back East, where cattle are confined, " he said. "In a state as wide open as Idaho, with cattle turned out to range, you'd be lucky to get any cows back if you didn't have brand inspectors."
Normally, his job is to inspect cattle when they leave the state, change owners or are slaughtered. Lately, he's been working day and night to solve the most vexing case of his career how cattle are vanishing like mist from an area he knows the way most people know their backyards.
"Cows disappear for lots of reasons, " he said. "Lightning, poisonous weeds, wolves. Ranchers have an idea how many they should lose to natural causes. If the numbers are beyond that, there has to be a reason."
"You can't blame it all on predators, " State Brand Inspector Larry Hayhurst added. "Some of it's two-legged predators."
Midvale rancher Steve Sutton is one of some 30 ranchers who have lost cattle. He lost 12 bred (pregnant) cows, six calves and a bull last year, worth $17,000.
"That's three times my normal loss, " he said. "I can't sustain that. And you don't know who's doing it unless you catch them red-handed."
Even then, the suspects can claim it was an honest mistake and have a chance of getting away with it.
"How do you prove your calf didn't just go through a hole in a fence onto the wrong property?" Gibson said. "You probably can't."
You might not even be able to prove it's your calf. Brands can be altered. A brand on a hip means a different owner than the same brand on a shoulder. Brands are added whenever animals are sold, and just seeing brands can be difficult.
"That's a lick mark, " Gibson said to a chagrined reporter who thought he'd spotted one. "Cows licking each other. It can be tough to see brands with the cows all haired up for winter."
RIGHT MAN FOR THE JOB
He knows ranchers as well as their cattle, saying with a straight face that he inspects "people as much as cows. I know who needs watching and who doesn't."
Ranchers say he's the right man for the job.
"I've known him all my life, " Sutton said. "Once he's on a deal like this, he doesn't stop."
Gibson, 58, has been a brand inspector 27 years. He grew up on a ranch at Crane Creek Reservoir, now part of his territory, and went on his first cattle drive at 11. At 15, he had his own truck and worked for neighbors, making sure their cows were fed, healthy and where they belonged. In one way or another, he's been inspecting cattle most of his life.
He and his wife own an elk ranch near Weiser, and he looks like the rancher he is worn boots and jeans, drooping mustache, sweat-stained ballcap. He patrols a brain-boggling network of back roads in a 2001 Chevrolet pickup packed with police radios, a spotting scope, range finder, binoculars, a Howa .231 rifle and an Idaho brand book with information on more than 2,700 brands. A .45 with elk-antler grips hangs from his belt.
"There have been a couple of times when I've had my shotgun out from under my duster, but thank God, I haven't had to use it," he said. "I'd hate to have to start doing that, but I like just about everything else about this job. How many people get to spend their life doing what they love in a setting like this?"
The setting was an alpine valley glittering with snow. Gibson knows every ranch, every rancher there.
'TO ME, THIS IS PERSONAL'
"I respect these guys. They're feeding this country. They're out there working hard every day in the mud and the blood and the beer. I went to school with some of them. To me, this is personal.
"Whoever's doing this has gotta be somebody that's in the community and knows cows. If they didn't, I'd catch them in a minute. It's neighbor taking from neighbor. Somebody trying to make a quick buck."
He thinks most of the cattle are being taken when they're on summer range deep in the mountains.
"Ranchers are pretty trusting. They'll put a $1,200 cow out where people can take it. Would you put a $1,200 TV out on the street in Boise?"
Thieves could move the cows in horse trailers, common sights locally, and their owners wouldn't know they were missing until they failed to return from the range in the fall or winter.
"We don't drive around looking for them to steal a cow, " Gibson said. " You could drive around till hell freezes over and not see anything. That's why we did the saturation patrol."
The saturation patrol was this fall, when Gibson worked 45 days without a day off. He and an assistant patrolled U.S. 95 night and day, watching for unfamiliar vehicles hauling cattle and stopping trucks to check brands. They found nothing they could prove was illegal.
"You have to prove intent. If a toolbox is in the back of the wrong pickup, it's pretty obvious it was stolen. But cows get shuffled around."
RUSTLERS GET SMARTER
"These rustlers we're dealing with now aren't stupid, " Gibson said. "If they were, they'd be caught by now."
"They've got a system, " Hayhurst said, "a mechanism that's getting cows past our system."
Gibson figures the rustlers are disposing of the cows in one of three ways. One is to "put their own irons (brands) on them, mix them with their own herds, and keep them for a couple of years before selling them. We'd know they were in the cow business, so it wouldn't raise many red flags. If it was somebody who said they just bought a cow from a local rancher, we'd ask to see the brand inspection."
Another way, he said, would be to "shuffle them onto a feedlot, get them branded with the feedlot iron and pass them off to an Oregon inspector. He wouldn't know the cows that are missing in our area.
"Or they're getting them clear out of the country to someplace like Nebraska. They don't have brand laws there." (Part of Nebraska is a brand area; the rest isn't.)
The cows represent a 3 to 5 percent loss of stock for local ranches. Loss to natural causes normally is 1 percent. The thefts are serious enough they could put small ranchers out of business that for the last nine months Gibson has been getting help from the U.S. Forest Service, three counties, the Idaho State Police and three state departments.
"We need more eyes, more surveillance, more people looking at paperwork, " Hayhurst said.
Adding to the challenge for law enforcement officers is a legal system that makes convictions and sentencing problematic. Unlike the Old West, where rustlers were hanged, the New West tends to view them as curiosities.
"I've seen people get five years, 10 years, but not often, " Hayhurst said. "It's hard to get overworked prosecutors to even take the cases. Most judges aren't interested, and juries don't even know how the game is played. They think all the beef comes from Albertsons."
That said, he adds that "Lynn will never sleep until this is solved."
On call 24/7, Gibson could have retired two years ago but wants to "stick around until we get this handled. I think we can do that, especially now that we've got some outside help. But it's still hard. It's not like having a cow taken out of your backyard. This is a pretty big backyard."