In scenes reminiscent of the Old West, cattle rustlers are making off with entire herds of live animals and in many cases, getting away with it.
John Meston lost 85 cattle last fall, including two 900-kilogram bulls, four cows and 79 calves. All told, that’s $175,000 worth of cattle, he said.
“A hit like this is quite devastating,” Meston said from his farm near Westlock, Alta.
“To work all our career in this industry, which we love, and to have this happen, it leaves a very bad taste in your mouth.”
It’s the second time Meston has dealt with rustlers, or cattle thieves. Nine years ago he had 21 cattle taken. In 2014 a neighbour had 100 calves stolen. Neither case was ever solved, according to the RCMP.
“In the middle of the night, they’re gone,” said brand inspector Butch Harris, who’s been working to protect farmers, ranches and auction houses from theft and fraud for 41 years.
Inspectors like Harris check to ensure the brand mark on cattle matches the farm or ranch that owns them. He says about 45 per cent of Alberta cattle are branded.
Rustling has been around a long time, he said.
“So as long as there’s cattle it’ll damn sure happen and probably always will to a certain degree,” Harris said.
“There’s way too much of it. It goes on, no doubt about it.”
Rising beef prices play a role
Harris has seen the number of cattle thefts in Alberta creeping up in recent years, particularly among the smaller thefts where people are taking “one or two head” to put in the deep freeze.
There are also abattoirs and butchers that sell stolen beef on the black market. As beef prices rise it becomes more lucrative, Harris said.
“With the way the economy is going and with the conditions of COVID and all of that I think a few have shown up that way for sure. Our missing reports seem to increase every year,” Harris said.
Cpl. Lindsey Anderson is part of a two-person team that makes up the RCMP’s livestock investigations unit in Alberta. They’re tasked with investigating the approximately 50 cattle thefts reported in the province each year.
“It happens more often than we think it does,” she explained in an interview with CBC News. “It’s always important for producers to report anytime something does go missing.”
With 85 cattle taken, the Meston case is unusual in its scope, she said.
“In order to steal a large quantity of cattle you have to know what you’re doing. You have to have the ability to go out and round them up and you have to have the ability to transport them.”
While brand inspectors will check auction markets in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, Harris says no such system exists in Manitoba or Ontario.
That makes it easier to load cattle onto trailers and sell them in those provinces, he added.
Few cases solved, jail time rare
Anderson says her team recovers livestock “two or three times a year.”
In a recent case, convictions brought fines and probation.
In 2020, Andre and Monika Ribi, ranchers from the Rural Municipality of Prairie Rose, Sask., were charged with multiple counts of theft of cattle, trafficking stolen cattle, fraudulently marking cattle and causing animals to be in distress.
The case involved 29 cows stolen from five different farms.
In January 2022 they pleaded guilty to reduced charges. Andre Ribi, a former municipal councillor for Prairie Rose, received a conditional sentence of six months, and 18 months probation. Monika Ribi was fined $5,000 plus a $2,000 victim surcharge. They also had to pay restitution to cattle owners who were unable to recover their cows.
John Meston is not hopeful he will get his cattle back. But he hopes his case will lead to better enforcement and more thorough investigations.
“If we don’t get on top of this and get it stopped there won’t be a cattle industry. Because why would someone spend all their life trying to build up a cattle ranch to have it stolen?”