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Brazen rustlers spook Alberta cattle ranchers

Recent theft saw 85 cattle stolen from a ranch north of Edmonton in what appeared a well-planned and equipped operation
The RCMP’s probe has been complicated by the fact that cattle are often stolen from ranges long before the theft is noticed, leaving little physical evidence and few eyewitnesses. | Mike Sturk

The recent brazen theft of 85 cattle worth about $175,000 has an Alberta rancher fearing that other beef producers are being increasingly targeted by criminals.

More RCMP officers must be hired to deter such thieves as part of improved resources to track down stolen cattle, said John Meston, whose farm is near Westlock, Alta., north of Edmonton.

He said criminals such as those who struck his operation last year must be caught “because if you don’t put a stop to it, it’s going to accelerate or escalate.”

Earlier this month the RCMP asked for tips from the public about the theft of 79 calves, four cows and two bulls. The cattle were Black Angus and Black Simmental and were branded with an M4 quarter circle on the right hip, said Cpl. Lindsey Anderson of the Alberta RCMP’s Livestock Investigations Unit.

A complaint about the theft was received Nov. 21. Meston said the crime likely occurred in late October, affecting cattle from three pastures in Athabasca County more than 60 kilometres from his home farm.

Anderson said they could also have been taken during previous months.

“From what I can see, they were stolen from different locations and their locations weren’t very close together, so it would’ve taken somebody with some knowledge, skills and abilities and some livestock experience, of course, to gather those up and transport them out of there,” she said.

“And again, it wouldn’t have been just one small bumper pull trailer, it would have been either multiple pulls or with a cattle-liner, so somebody with some experience was involved in that.”

Although the farm kept good records and knew what was missing, the cattle may have been transported to Manitoba or Eastern Canada where there is no brand inspection, she said.

“And potentially, I don’t know, did they go to a feedlot? Did they get sold privately, or did they go out of province? I don’t know.”

The RCMP’s probe has been complicated by the fact that “cattle come out of the pasture in the fall and then producers notice a whole bunch are missing, so unfortunately, no real physical evidence or any eyewitnesses to follow any lead on at the time,” said Anderson.

Officers are seeking the public’s assistance, she said.

It’s the second time in recent memory that Meston’s operation has been targeted. Meston said no one was caught after 20 bred heifers and a bull worth a total of about $50,000 were stolen from his operation in 2014.

The latest theft places a heavy financial burden on his farm, he said, besides the loss of years of work building up herd genetics.

“In other words, you can’t go on any holidays,” said Meston, 74. “You don’t waste any money at all. You adjust your farm with your depreciation because you don’t have $175,000 to buy the new tractor because somebody stole it.”

Although his farm will survive, “I need to have the system fixed,” he said. “I’m worried about the industry because you can’t let this go on.”

The Livestock Investigations Unit has two officers funded by Livestock Identification Services Ltd., which has been delegated by the Alberta government to provide brand inspection. One of the positions has been vacant since the end of June and a replacement is being sought, said Shawn McLean, general manager of LIS.

He said there also needs to be more training at RCMP detachments to help existing staff better deal with the problems.

“I think it would be a start, anyhow.”

The Livestock Investigations Unit conducts or co-ordinates investigations in RCMP jurisdictions across the province and works with RCMP livestock investigators in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, said Cpl. Troy Savinkoff in a July 21 email. There is one each in the latter provinces, with the position in Saskatchewan being filled for the first time in October.

McLean said there have been discussions about establishing a brand inspection service in Manitoba, which is the only western Canadian province without one. However, he was unsure if expanding such services across the rest of the country is necessarily the answer to deterring cattle thieves.

Anyone with information about the theft can phone the Livestock Investigations Unit at 403-701-1462. People wishing to remain anonymous can contact Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477 (TIPS) or online at