At Large

Who Are Those Guys?

A rustling story as old as the West.

By 12.2.09

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There's a scene in Paul Newman and Robert Redford's 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in which, as the two are robbing a train, they're surprised when the door of a boxcar bursts open and down a ramp rides a determined posse. Butch and Sundance escape amidst a hail of bullets. As they are relentlessly pursued for days across mountains and deserts, Butch occasionally poses a rhetorical question to Sundance: "Who are those guys?" In a switching of roles, law enforcement agencies across the Great Basin are asking themselves the same question.

According to a recent story from AP, a pilot flying over remote Malheur County, Oregon, caught a rare glimpse of part of a gang of five or six men thought to be responsible for the theft of approximately "1,240 cattle worth $1.2 million over the last three years from Malheur County ranches." Another 500 in Nevada are missing, plus more in Owyhee County, Idaho.

The pilot observed two proficient horsemen driving roughly 125 cows across the empty landscape. The riders seemed to purposely not look up as the plane buzzed them. They just kept riding and finally the plane veered off. Unfortunately, the pilot didn't bother to report the sighting for a week. That sighting was last spring, and none have occurred since, though the rustling continues.

It's a cliché to say that cattle rustling is as old as the West, but it is. Probably related to the weak economy, rustling cases in Texas alone have almost tripled in one year, from roughly 2,400 in 2007 to 6,400 in 2008. Successful rustlers usually have knowledge of the ranching industry, such as how to alter brands, and where and when to safely sell the cattle without detection. Calves are popular because they are easier to steal and transport. And people who raise small numbers of livestock as a hobby or sideline many times don't brand them. 

John McPhee once wrote a New Yorker piece called "Irons in the Fire" about a Nevada brand inspector named Chris Collis, whose job involved working with law enforcement to hunt down rustlers. One of the points of McPhee's piece -- it was published in late 1993 -- was that even cattle rustling had gone high tech. Rustlers used large cattle trucks, pickups, motorcycles, ATVs and cellphones (and today GPS units). But the guys spotted from the airplane seem to be succeeding -- for now anyway -- because they are doing it the old fashioned way on horseback, and by purposely avoiding towns, roads, ranches, and people. And they obviously know the country. "The way these cattle are ending up missing, those guys grew up tough," Malheur County Sheriff's Deputy Bob Wroten told AP. When quoted, Deputy Wroten was investigating the likely theft of 33 head of cattle from the remote "Juniper Ranch" in Malheur County.

The country is as tough as Deputy Wroten's opinion of the rustlers. It's about 25,000 square miles of mostly Bureau of Land Management (BLM) federal holdings leased for grazing to ranchers in Southeastern Oregon, Southwestern Idaho, and Northern Nevada. It's also home to wildlife refuges, federally protected wild horse herds, and two Indian reservations: Fort McDermitt and Duck Valley. In one of his songs, the cowboy folksinger Ian Tyson describes it as "the sagebrush sea." I once drove through it from Boise south to Winnemucca, Nevada, on U.S. 95. Two hundred miles (roughly the distance from New York to Washington, D.C.) of a horizon-to-horizon undulating desert voyage, with occasional rocky buttes, and innumerable dry creek beds snaking up uncountable draws leading off away to nowhere. Is that distant mountain fifty miles away, or a hundred? You can get gas, coffee, beer, or a plate of bacon and eggs in hour-apart hamlets like Jordan Valley and Basque Station, Oregon, or McDermitt and Orovada, Nevada.  This is also Claude Dallas country.

Claude Dallas currently lives on parole somewhere after his release from a Kansas maximum security prison in 2005, after serving a total of 22 years of a 30-year sentence for the involuntary manslaughter of two Idaho Fish and Game officers named Conley Elms and Bill Pogue, who tried to arrest him for poaching bobcats and other animals in Owyhee County, Idaho, in 1981. The trapper-outlaw was on the lam for a year before being arrested in Nevada. He escaped from Idaho State Penitentiary in 1986, and was at large for roughly another year before being captured in Riverside, California, and sent to Kansas. Despite the escape, he was a model prisoner after that, hence his early -- but controversial -- release.

This part of the West has none of the "amenities" that attracts tourism or real estate development : no snow skiing or fly fishing etc. No wonderful views such as might be seen from a ski chalet in the Colorado Rockies. It hasn't been discovered by Hollywood celebrities or hobby ranchers like Ted Turner. Though it's desert, it lacks the redrock canyon photo-glamour of the Southwest. In many ways it's a throwback to the 19th century: The land of the Basque sheepherder and the "buckaroo" (as the local cowboys describe themselves; buckaroo being an Americanized version of the Spanish "vaquero"), with an average population density of two people per square mile. It is the land of Claude Dallas and those rustlers on horseback stealing cattle.

But who are these guys? And where is the market for the stolen cattle? On what isolated backcountry dirt road are the cattle trucks parked that transport them? "Wanted" posters are appearing in local post offices and other public places and offering a $47,500 reward for information leading to the conviction of the rustlers.

But who are they?

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.