JORDAN VALLEY, Ore. – They were spotted from a small airplane, two cattle rustlers on horseback hazing 125 white-faced cows across Malheur County’s forbidding empty quarter in Oregon’s far southeast corner.
The men, sighted last spring, were pushing the stolen herd south through a high-desert tapestry of chaparral, manzanita, juniper and sagebrush. They looked like ordinary cowboys.
The pilot descended for a closer view, but the men didn’t look up, said brand inspector Rodger Huffman, of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The pilot finally had to break away, and the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office didn’t hear about the sighting until a week later.
It was one of the few glimpses anyone has caught of men suspected of stealing 1,240 cattle worth $1.2 million over the past three years from Malheur County ranches. Hundreds more cows have been taken in neighboring areas of Idaho and Nevada.
Cattle rustling did not fade away with the Old West. What makes these thieves unusual, investigators said, is the scale and duration of their operations, their use of horses to reach areas inaccessible to car or truck, and the fact that they sometimes drive their plundered herds for days.
Malheur County sheriff’s Deputy Bob Wroten and others suspect the thefts are the work of one group of four to six men who are well-acquainted with the territory.
“The way these cattle are ending up missing, those guys grew up tough,” he said. “They lived the life all their lives. They aren’t outsiders.”
The losses have been devastating. Most of the stolen cattle were females that each year produce calves worth $600 apiece.
Rand and Jayne Collins had 150 cows swiped from their Malheur County ranch three years ago.
“The people who stole them had to know this many cattle would be beyond a hardship; it was a catastrophe,” said Jayne Collins, 59, of the $150,000 hit. The cattle were taken from an area so isolated that it’s reachable from most of Oregon only by a road that winds into rural Nevada, said Rand Collins, 60. The couple spent hours searching canyons in a friend’s airplane without finding a trace.
The rustlers’ theater of operations is roughly bounded by Oregon’s 30-mile-long Steens Mountain to the west, Winnemucca, Nev., to the south and Murphy, Idaho, to the east. After stealing a herd, the gang sometimes moves across 50 miles of Oregon desert into Idaho, then Nevada.
On the rare occasion when someone spots the thieves in the desert, the men usually appear to be cowhands out riding for a few hours, Deputy Wroten said. They’re never seen with bedrolls on their saddles or halters on their horses, he said, probably to avoid signaling that they plan to camp and picket their horses.
“It’s kind of like the old days, way back,” said Sheriff Ed Kilgore, of Humboldt County. “Sometimes these guys are traveling two, three, four days at a time to get where they are going.”