SELBY, S.D. (KELO) — In August 2022, KELOLAND News delved into the issue of cattle thefts in north central South Dakota, speaking with ranchers in the area, including Vaughn Thorstenson, who’s fence was cut. Thorstenson lost no cattle in this instance, but he’s still offering a $5,000 reward for any information that leads to a prosecution.
Thorstenson opted to leave the bounty in place because he’s not the only one to have experienced issues in the region.
On Thursday, KELOLAND spoke with Dustin Burggraff, Thorstenson’s ranch manager, checking in on how things have gone in the past year.
So far, that reward has gone unclaimed, and no really progress has taken place. “Not as far as legal action is concerned,” said Burggraff. “Nothing to tie anybody specific to anything.”
Finding something specific isn’t an easy task in this instance. “We’re in eastern South Dakota, but it’s still pretty remote,” Burggraff said. “I don’t want to say it’s hard to get to — but you’re definitely not in this area unless you are intending on being here.”
It is indeed a remote area. Between Walworth and Campbell counties, the areas where we heard of thefts last year, there are fewer than 7,000 people in an area of over 1,400 square miles. A little over 3,000 of them live in the town of Mobridge, the only town of more than 1,000 between the two counties.
Luckily, Burggraff says that they haven’t had any cattle or calves stolen this year, though luck may have less to do with it than effort.
The daily routine Burggraff laid out — save for the location — wouldn’t sound out of place as a description of the daily life of character in a spy novel.
“Its been a lot of miles, just driving around — 4:30 in the morning you go up and you go for a drive, just checking things out — odd hours of the day, trying not to make yourself a pattern just in case anybody’s watching or looking,” explained Burggraff. “You want to go somewhere and you think twice about it — we really don’t go [anywhere] like we used to go because you just spend time driving around watching; looking for odd things.”
Burggraff’s concern isn’t without warning, it was while he was away for a single weekend last year that the fence was cut.
Much time was also devoted this spring to trying to determine exactly where to keep the calves as they grew throughout the summer. You don’t want them in a place that’s too hard to go and check on them, but you also don’t want them to be too accessible either.
“We’re rolling hills up here,” Burggraff pointed out. “I always tell my wife when I’m back in there making hay or checking cows — if I had a heart attack or got hurt out here, nobody would ever find me — so being very intentional about where the cattle are.”
The main thing has been time on the ground however, said Burggraff. “I spend way more time out with the cattle than I have in years past,” he said. “In years past it was maybe check em really good once a week and check water maybe two or three times a week — but this year I’ve been in with the cattle probably every other day or more.”
Things that may have seemed like innocent occurrences in the past are also cause for extra scrutiny now. “If there’s cattle out, you’re definitely jumping right away,” he said. “Cattle get out — it happens — but you’re on high alert.”
Things may have been quiet for Burggraff, but that doesn’t mean he’s relaxing his watch. “We gotta keep this up for several years — last year we were awfully close [to catching the thieves] — they’ve just got to make one wrong move once and we’ll figure it out.”
Kyle Rossow, a South Dakota Brand Inspector based in Herreid, confirmed the seeming lull in cattle thefts in the area, mentioning over the phone to KELOLAND that he’d heard from one rancher who’d had five or six calves go missing back in early June, but that beyond that, things had been quiet.
On some level Rossow is surprised there haven’t been more thefts this summer, or at least attempted thefts, as the price of cattle are currently quite high.
“This is how we make our living,” Burggraff said, explaining why he’s so devoted to protecting the cattle. “When we’re calving from the 5th of January to the 1st of March, I don’t know if there’s a stretch of time where I get more than two or three hours of sleep at a time — we’re not just doing this for the money — this is our lifestyle; this is our livelihood. This is what we were put here to do. We are caretakers of these animals and we want to do the absolute best that we can for the animal.”
While Rossow thinks the thieves may have gotten spooked due to the publicity they’ve received in the area, he, like Burggraff, doesn’t believe they’re gone. Rather, he said he continues to think that they must be locals, citing the incidents last year where the thieves seemed to know when the animals caretakers were gone.
“It’s too coincidental,” Rossow declared. He went on to lament the current state of things, where people are looking around their own communities with suspicion. Rossow is a rancher himself, and “it’s hard to trust people anymore,” he commented.
The South Dakota Brand Board also has an offering available for information leading to cattle recovery; $5,000.