Colorado brand inspectors Daren Clever and Brad Ocker, right, inspect a trailer Friday along Colorado Highway 13 a few miles south of Craig. The pair set up a checkpoint with Gary Nichols, Moffat County Sheriff's Office deputy, and stopped all vehicles with animal trailers to check livestock brands and other legal files. Ocker and Nichols are investigating suspected livestock thefts in northern Moffat County and plan to set up at least one road checkpoint each month through the fall.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Colorado brand inspectors Daren Clever and Brad Ocker, right, inspect a trailer Friday along Colorado Highway 13 a few miles south of Craig. The pair set up a checkpoint with Gary Nichols, Moffat County Sheriff's Office deputy, and stopped all vehicles with animal trailers to check livestock brands and other legal files. Ocker and Nichols are investigating suspected livestock thefts in northern Moffat County and plan to set up at least one road checkpoint each month through the fall.

Great Divide ranchers lose cattle to suspected rustlers

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Colorado Brand Inspector Brad Ocker, back left, talks with drivers Friday at an inspection point. Ocker covers Moffat and some of Routt counties, and Brand Inspector Daren Clever covers Routt, Grand and Summit counties.

Brad Ocker got the first call in October 2008, as cattle ranchers across Moffat County brought their herds off summer pastures and began to count their stock.

Three ranchers near the Little Snake River northwest of Great Divide were missing cattle, as many as 50 head of mature Black Angus all together.

The suspected cause: rustlers.

This year, Ocker, Colorado brand inspector for Moffat County, and Gary Nichols, Moffat County Sheriff's Office deputy, are preparing to head any potential thieves off at the pass before they can strike again.

Whether it's known as cattle rustling or its modern equivalent of livestock theft, the Old West lives on in the country's remote places, Ocker said.

"As long as cattle are running out on the range and they're worth money, and the economy is the way it is and people are out of work, you better watch your livestock," he said.

Nichols has seen other rustling cases before, but nothing like this.

"We don't get a lot of reports of cattle theft," he said. "I have investigated a few that were just one cow missing. Typically, in those cases, it's a person that might have taken one to feed their family on."

The magnitude of the number of cattle missing suggests to him, however, that the animals are being taken and sold commercially.

There's also some supporting evidence to that end.

A few weeks ago, Ocker and Nichols received a report of five cow heads dumped by the side of County Road 9, in the same area as the ranchers who reported losses.

The heads appeared to be left there some time ago and likely sat through winter, Nichols said.

He also identified bullet holes in the skulls.

Each looked as if it had been cut from the rest of the carcass with a saw, and the ears had been removed, probably to hide a rancher's specific earmark, Nichols added.

It seems that if there is a rustler in Moffat County, he's taking cattle and then butchering them in a second location and dumping the remains in a third.

Nichols said there are a few people of interest in the case but no suspects at this time.

Although this is the largest livestock theft case Nichols has seen, Ocker and fellow brand inspector Daren Clever have been down this road before.

"It's very rare, but it does happen," Ocker said.

About five to six years ago, when Ocker worked in Larimer County, he caught a man stealing his neighbor's cattle and simply putting his brand on the opposite side of his cattle as his neighbor.

"Yeah, that one was pretty simple to solve," Ocker said.

Clever declined to give details but said he's snared one rustler and two horse thieves in the past. He now is investigating his own rustling case in Routt County.

Nichols said he has long suspected there was more rustling in Moffat County than reported, and he hopes this will cause more ranchers to contact law enforcement officials.

Many livestock owners will chalk up small herd losses to natural mortality, which Nichols said usually claims 2 to 3 percent each year.

"There's several thousands of head of cattle that typically run on open range on (Bureau of Land Management) land or public land every year," he said, referring to Moffat County. "With all that cattle turned out, and it's pretty much unmonitored most of the time, who knows?"

Nichols and Ocker plan to set up as many roadside livestock checkpoints as they can until winter to check what brands people are carrying and see what they can find.

The first was Friday on Colorado Highway 13 south of Craig.

"This won't be the last," Ocker said. "We're going to do as many as we can."

Nichols said he hopes they get to the rustlers before ranchers do.

"Even though it is 2009, there's a possibility they could revert back to the 1800s," he said. "I hope the ranchers call us to handle it and not do anything on their own."

Nichols added that anyone who sees anything suspicious, such as a strange vehicle or trailer or strangers loading livestock, should call him or Ocker at the Sheriff's Office, 824-4495.

Collin Smith can be reached at 875-1794 or cesmith@craigdailypress.com.

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