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Meet Nevada’s cow cops

Where crime scene investigators ride the range.

On a July morning in 2014, a third-generation cattleman named Mitch Heguy was driving his truck along Susie Creek in Elko County, Nevada, when he saw something peculiar. It was one of his neighbor Jon Griggs’ cows, standing there with an odd-looking, circular wound on her shoulder, several inches in diameter, with its blood crusted over her dark hide. Heguy wondered if it was a particularly horrible rattlesnake bite, or if the heifer had stuck herself with a tree branch, which cattle can do on a bad day. But as the rancher looked closer, squinting in the sun, he decided it had to be the result of something more intentional, nefarious even. It was a bullet wound. He called Griggs. “I think someone shot one of your cows,” he said.

 

The dazed heifer meandered back into the hundreds of thousands of acres of sagebrush and juniper of the Maggie Creek Ranch, a checkerboard of Bureau of Land Management and private land. She wasn’t seen again for six weeks, when Griggs gathered his herd for sale at season’s end. By then, the wound was partly healed.

As Heguy and his wife, Rhonda, remember it, that cow, worth at least $2,000, was the first such victim found near their property, though they had heard of livestock being shot elsewhere over the past couple of years. The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association eventually reported 25 wounded or dead cows that year, in addition to at least 35 more since 2012 — though it wasn’t clear how many had been shot with guns.

Through the summer, Jon Griggs and the Heguys counted about 30 cows wounded between their two herds. By August they were ready to call the cops. The people who respond to these kinds of incidents across the state comprise a six-person team called the Agriculture Enforcement Unit within the Nevada Department of Agriculture. They are well known to ranchers, but unknown to most other people. Each member of the team has a background in ranching and is a graduate of law enforcement academy. They carry handguns and a handy book of livestock brands; their patrol vehicles are equipped with police sirens but also veterinarian supplies. They call themselves jokingly, but accurately, cow cops. And those were the cops the ranchers called.

 

In the early days of ranching in the West, few laws existed, and those that did were hard to enforce. Beginning in 1873, county officials began recording livestock brands across Nevada. State brand inspectors worked with local law enforcement to try to keep order, since they lacked the authority to enforce the law themselves. In 1971, brand inspectors were empowered to make arrests and investigate certain agricultural crimes. For decades, they did their best at both registering brands and enforcing the law. “That could be dangerous,” says Flint Wright, now the head of the Nevada Agriculture Department’s animal division. It wasn’t until 1994 that the department was able to hire a separate team of inspectors who also had police training and carried guns. Now, “when an inspection or investigation is potentially dangerous, an agriculture enforcement officer is sent instead of a brand inspector,” Wright says.  

Being a good cow cop requires versatility and being okay with a lot of time on the road. Officers are often the first to respond to car crashes and have to direct traffic and secure accident scenes until sheriffs or police arrive. They handle drunk drivers if necessary and respond to livestock animal abuse reports.

Today, the department is funded in part by federal grants and reimbursements, with 2 percent of its budget coming from the Nevada general fund. The plant and animal programs, including brand inspection, get most of their funding from inspection fees.

Chris Miller investigates livestock crimes in Nevada’s northwest district.
Nick Gonzales

In August, cow cops Justin Ely, 30, and Blaine Northrop, 63, met with a deputy at the sheriff’s office in Elko. The three officers, who planned to spend the day searching for clues at the Maggie Creek and Heguy ranches, north of I-80, conferred on what they knew: Most of the shootings had happened in remote areas that might take an hour to drive to on one of the long dirt roads that divide the properties. They also thought about what they didn’t know: Who did it, when and why. When the officers left on horseback, it was a dry morning looking to be a hot day.

They traversed the Adobe Range, skirted Swales Mountain and passed by hardrock mine shafts, 100 years forgotten. They rode over juniper- and sage-strewn slopes that were once Shoshone territory, and now cattle country, used by ranchers, ATV riders and zinc miners. Illegal marijuana grows had been busted nearby, so they wondered if maybe someone had sprayed cattle to keep the animals off their ill-gained turf. But the lawmen found no evidence of pot grows. They recovered a few bullets from a .22 caliber firearm, which seemed odd. “Most people don’t shoot with .22s,” Elko County Sheriff Jim Pitts told me later. Maybe the culprits were squirrel or bird hunters, they speculated. Northrop, Ely and the deputy returned that afternoon with little to report. Whoever was doing the damage wasn’t leaving much of a trace.  

Some people wondered if the motive was political — environmentalists wanting to make a statement about the negative ecological impacts of grazing, perhaps. In 1989, an anonymous member of Earth First! told the Los Angeles Times that he had cut fence and shot holes in water tanks on Nevada ranches. In the 1990s, environmental activists allegedly shot up to 30 cows in Northern California. But these people seemed to be shooting to wound, not to kill. “If they really wanted to hurt us, they’d go after the solar panels at our wells,” Griggs told me. “I hate to even say that out loud.” During the 2014 shooting spree, Maggie Creek lost tens of thousands of dollars in cattle, which can fetch up to $2,800 per head in good market years.

At the end of September 2014, the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, state Department of Agriculture and Nevada Farm Bureau posted an $11,500 reward, most it from the affected ranchers, for the arrest and conviction of “the person or persons who have maliciously shot livestock in the Susie Creek area.” Community members supported the investigation on social media, updating regularly, and hunters called the department almost daily to offer their help.  

Chris Miller stops a vehicle hauling livestock to check papers and make sure health certificates are up to date.
Nick Gonzales

Flint Wright, 36, is 5-foot-10 and has dark spikey hair with hints of gray. He wears jeans and boots to work and has a personable, straightforward demeanor. Wright worked in ranching full time and then became a cattle broker before he took the position with the state in 2013. He’s now the head of the state’s Animal Disease Laboratory, Wildlife Services and the Livestock Identification Program, and is in charge of policing livestock laws across Nevada. He oversees 76 part-time brand inspectors and five full-time officers. This fall, Wright gained his newest officer, stationed near Las Vegas, to police livestock and plant crimes — mostly invasive contraband like yellow starthistle or medusahead, which shows up in nurseries and in landscaping.

Wright’s other four full-time officers mostly deal with livestock, and each patrols a district of over 10 million acres. “Most of them are very aware of who is running cattle or sheep, who works for those particular people,” Wright says. “They’re looking for something out of place.” Blaine Northrop patrols the northern district and Justin Ely the center, while Chris Miller handles the northwest and Sterling Wines looks after east-central and south Nevada.

“There’s a lot of country to cover,” Ely told me recently, when I visited the state agriculture office in Elko. Ely, based out of a sheriff’s office in Winnemucca, is 6-foot-3, wears a dark mustache, jeans, boots and a .45-caliber pistol on his hip. He spends most days patrolling the highways and remote dirt roads that crisscross his district. “You see right here,” he continued, placing his index finger on a 5-foot-tall map of Nevada, mounted on the wall. “That county alone is larger than New Hampshire.” 

Nevada cow cops have the authority to stop any vehicle hauling livestock, to check its papers and make sure brand inspections and health certificates are up to date. During spring and fall, when a high number of animals are shipped and sold, Ely might pull over eight trucks in a day. Usually, one of them has to be turned back or investigated further. “It’s the frontlines of protection for food safety,” Wright says. The department has to trace every animal that leaves or enters the state within 24 hours. Tracking has improved in recent years, and a new USDA animal traceability law went into effect in 2013, strengthening requirements for shipping animals across state lines in order to better trace outbreaks of disease. The law also helps cow cops regulate illegal sales, or “trading on the truck” — when a seller finds a better price for his or her livestock somewhere else and illegally changes its destination. “The temptation is just there,” Wright says. “People are willing to risk that felony.”            

Chris Miller on patrol in Nevada’s northwest district.
Nick Gonzales
            

In late September 2014, Northrop was at his office in Elko when he got a call from a cattle producer in western Utah. Ranches were seeing an outbreak of pigeon fever, the rancher warned, so keep an eye out for it. “Great,” Northrop thought. Cattle had recently been mysteriously shot in numbers higher than anyone in Nevada could remember, and now this. Pigeon fever, more common in horses, can be carried by flies and sometimes creates pus-filled infections with open sores that resemble scabbed-over bullet wounds. 

It was around that time that Justin Ely, the Winnemucca-based officer, received reports of nearly 80 more shot-up cows in the area. He drove out to a ranch to inspect them. A veterinarian swabbed the open sores and sent the samples to a lab for testing. It was pigeon fever. Word spread fast, then confusion and paranoia. Mitch Heguy wondered about the incidents on his own property: “Are we imagining this? Could it all just be pigeon fever?” But a veterinarian said no, Heguy’s cows had bullet wounds, same as Griggs’ cows and Sam Mori’s, 30 miles north. For the shooting investigation, the pigeon fever was a red herring.

By October, the reward for information on the cow shootings had climbed to $20,600. Ranchers claimed higher numbers of victims, but the state confirmed that at least five head had been killed and 21 wounded, many left with intestines hanging out of their bellies. Ranchers discussed the issue at the fall Nevada cattlemen’s convention. The Heguys found out that others — producers in Eureka County and near Battle Mountain and yet another north of Wells — had experienced shootings, too. Whoever was apprehended would likely be charged with animal cruelty and destruction of property and, if convicted, receive up to a year in jail and a $25,000 fine. But any leads that Wright’s team had were going cold. 

Joe Heguy, Mitch and Rhonda Heguy’s son, keeps an eye on the cattle after they’ve been vaccinated at his family’s Nevada ranch.
Nick Gonzales
 

As a livestock crimes investigator, you come to know communities of people well, and their landscapes even better. You learn to read your physical environment in ways other people don’t. You can spot a vehicle carrying livestock from a mile away, and you notice dust spiraling up from a dirt road in the distance, spend a minute wondering who it might be, and then probably stop them to find out. You notice tourists in camper vans parked on BLM land and sportsmen heading out for a hunt, and you file that away in your mind. It’s your job to be aware of these things, just in case.

Yet even knowing every person who works on every patch of land in your district won’t stop cattle rustling from happening under your nose. It is one of the major crimes cow cops look out for. The thieves usually have some kind of personal relationship with the victim; ranch hands are often prime suspects.

In one such case in 2011, Northrop got an out-of-the-blue call from a brand inspector in the tiny community of Deeth in Elko County. The inspector had a bill of sale for six calves, but something about it seemed off. It turned out that two cowboys were getting ready to steal the calves from the rancher they worked for and had forged the bill of sale. One of them confessed, pled guilty to felony cattle theft, was fined and got two years’ probation.

That was a simple case of rustling; cow cops deal with similar cases that cross state lines. Interstate communication is essential to catching crooks. Every Western state has livestock criminal investigators. When an animal goes missing, an email will be fired off to brand inspectors in neighboring districts and states, as well as to sale barns. In the old days, law enforcement, and thieves, were more low-tech. One notorious rustler in northern Nevada in the 1920s stole cattle while wearing shoes he’d created with hooves strapped to the bottom, so his footprints looked like those of cows and could not be traced back to him.

There’s been a reported increase in rustling in recent years in Nevada and beyond. In Oklahoma, meth addicts have apparently stolen cattle to support their habits. In Nevada, ranchers say the increase might be a response to the environmental and economic impacts of drought and bad market years. Cow cops have apprehended four rustlers in the past two years and investigated 15 cases in the last three.  

Meanwhile, the challenges around multiple use in open spaces multiply as the human population grows. Half a century ago, one recreationist a month crossed Heguy’s property; now, during bird season, that number is closer to 20. Ranches near Elko once felt remote, but today, as the desert town sprawls south along the highway, conflicts are bound to arise. In a crowded West, in other words, a cow cop’s job won’t get any easier.

Rhonda Heguy prepares to vaccinate a cow.
Nick Gonzales

In the spring of 2015, a few more shootings were reported, but they seemed unrelated to one another. A cow was shot at close range near a BLM wild horse management area in Elko County, raising suspicions of a horse activist on the rampage. Near Crescent Valley, a cow was found shot and quartered, its backstrap neatly missing.

All these shootings were a reminder of the vulnerability of northern Nevada’s ranches. They are some of the largest in the nation, requiring so much space for forage that there’s no way to strictly monitor where the cows go, what they do and whom they encounter. “Off the top of my head, it’s happened at least once to all of our friends,” Dave Stix Jr., president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, said of the shootings. “Shit, you might was well start at the top of the list of all of our members — guarantee they’ve all had one killed or maimed.” 

With their proximity to Elko, Jon Griggs and Mitch Heguy’s ranches are particularly vulnerable to mischief. Heguy became increasingly paranoid about who was driving by his property — found himself writing down license plate numbers of vehicles he didn’t recognize. “We leave the access (to BLM land) through our private land open,” he said. “We don’t lock it up, but we could.” Most visitors coming and going are relatively harmless. Griggs once found a group of dirt bikers tearing up a remote area of his rangeland. When he asked if they knew where they were, the bikers said, “Oh, we thought we were just out in the hills.” 

But the shootings were different, something menacing. By the summer of 2015, the reward was up to $28,700. Wright and his team had only been able to verify that about 25 of the dead animals had been shot; infection can make it difficult to determine the cause of death, and the spray of a shotgun can make an infected bullet wound hard to differentiate from something like pigeon fever. Wright had told the press his team identified “persons of interest” in the case, but they led nowhere. The case was cold.        

A cow Mitch Heguy believes was shot in 2014. The cow was put down some weeks after this photo was taken, never having recovered from the wound.
Nick Gonzales
        

One morning this past August, Wright, Northrop and Ely stood in a pasture at the foot of the Ruby Range, examining a dead horse. It had wandered into a fenced area without access to water and couldn’t find its way out. After two days, it died of thirst. The horse was lying on its side, the brown hide stretched tight around its bloated body, its legs straight and stiff in the air. There was no evidence of foul play, but the death is now part of an ongoing investigation that the officers can’t comment on.

If Wright’s officers spend most of their time dealing with cattle, horses are the runner-up. In August, his team helped investigate the deaths of a dozen horses, along with some snipped fences and vandalized water tanks at a wild horse rescue center.

There were 34,500 wild horses and burros in Nevada as of last March — nearly three times what the BLM deems viable for this landscape. Northrop once got a call about a particularly bad case of “horse hoarding.” A couple had collected dozens of feral horses, presumably to save them from BLM auctions or starvation on the range. Yet when the cow cops arrived, they saw grossly emaciated horses, as well as goats that were so hungry they were eating the hay out of sheep’s wool, even the wool itself. The state Department of Agriculture had to shut down the couple’s “rescue” operation.

As in many places in the West, in Nevada, mustangs are a source of vitriol. Many ranchers are increasingly desperate to have them removed from the delicate range of the Great Basin, while animal rights activists are adamant that mustangs should not be sacrificed for cattle. Wright says that, as a cow cop, the only death threats he’s received came from folks “in the Cliven Bundy crowd” — and wild horse activists.

This horse’s death on the side of a dirt road was preventable. Better fencing might have helped, but at least it didn’t seem intentional. Not like one of Heguy’s cows, which had suffered from an apparent bullet wound and would later be put down. The cow cops couldn’t shake their frustration, anger, and resignation with such shootings — a crime they’d been unable to solve and that seemed likely to reoccur until they did. Northrop and Wright peered down at the horse lying in the sagebrush on the other side of the barbed wire fence. Flies buzzed chaotically around it.

“Smells like Mom’s home cooking,” Ely joked. It smelled like rotten eggs. After a few minutes, the cow cops moved on. It was almost noon, and there was a lot more country to cover.

Tay Wiles is an associate editor of High Country News.