More than 130 cows and calves have been reported missing in Idaho this week in what may be tied to a resurgence in cattle rustling amid a sharp increase in beef prices, state livestock officials said on Wednesday.
A rancher whose cattle grazed east of Idaho Falls reported 25 cow-calf pairs missing this week after accounting for the rest of his stock, all of which were branded and had identifying ear tags, authorities said.
Meanwhile, another Idaho rancher told local law enforcement officials on Monday that 41 such pairs – or a total of 82 animals – were stolen from his grazing allotment south of Idaho Falls, sheriff's deputies said.
Clues that thieves may have nabbed the cattle include the relatively large number of animals involved and the fact that both the cows and their calves are missing, said Idaho State Brand Inspector Larry Hayhurst.
"Calves might sometimes show up without their mommies, and mommies sometimes show up without their babies. But you usually don't see pairs go missing, and not in these numbers," he said.
But it remains possible the animals that roamed on public lands in remote areas of southeastern Idaho simply joined herds grazing nearby and were gathered by other ranchers who have yet to sort the animals, said Evan Smith, animal control deputy with the Bonneville County Sheriff's Office.
"We're keeping an eye on it," he said.
The incidents come as sale yards are reporting a sharp increase in cattle prices. For example, a 10-month-old heifer weighing from 600 to 800 pounds is now bringing $2.30 per pound compared to $1.30 a pound at the same time last year, according to the Lewiston Livestock Market in Idaho.
Hayhurst said high beef prices combined with cattle roaming the open range and human greed account for recent incidents in Idaho and other Western states in which rustlers have absconded with cows during pre-dawn hours when ranchers are unlikely to be checking stock.
Hayhurst said one recent case in Idaho saw a rustler steal 10 Holsteins from a 1,000-cow dairy farm in the southwestern part of the state by loading them into a gooseneck trailer in the middle of the night.
The thief was himself nabbed when he sought to sell the cows at an auction, where suspicions were aroused by the fact the seller had removed the animals' vaccination tags, Hayhurst said.