CAMPBELL COUNTY, S.D. (KELO) — Campbell County is a remote area in north central South Dakota. If you’re not from the area, you likely don’t know anyone there, which isn’t particularly unusual considering there are fewer than 1,500 people in the entire 771-square-mile county. The largest town in the county is Herreid, where 450 of the aforementioned ~1500 people live.

What there are a lot of in Campbell County is cattle.

Per the USDA, in 2021 there were 38,500 cattle and calves in Campbell County, more than 25 for every person.

The official census estimate for Campbell County’s 2021 population is 1,380, to be precise. If you take the 450 people in Herreid and add the additional 224 in Pollock and 74 in Mound City, the only other towns in the county, that leaves a total of 632 Campbell County residents living out in the country.

As of 2017, 38% of the county’s farmland was used as pasture land. All of this is to say that in a county with an already low population, those who choose to make a living raising and selling cattle have a large job resting upon them. They must keep watch over hundreds of animals spread across acres of land, and the combination of herd size and the land area has left these ranchers vulnerable to a growing issue in the region.

Cattle theft.

Corey Sandmeier is a farmer and rancher in this region, and he’s missing some livestock. “You always hope it doesn’t happen to you, but this year it did happen to me,” he said.

Sandmeier made this statement while recalling the plight of a neighboring rancher, Vaughn Thorstenson, who had cattle stolen last year, and whose fence was cut this year.

“Vaughn had trouble last year, and I helped a few of his guys look and kept an eye out,” Sandmeier said, “We never came across anything.”

This type of story was typical across each of the ranchers, hands and officials I spoke with in looking into this story. The ranchers of Campbell County are a fairly tight-knit community, and when cattle go missing, there is often no immediate alarm, and it is often a group effort in working to recover them.

In early July, around the 6th or 7th, Sandmeier was bucked off a horse, and as a result, spent a few days in the hospital recovering from broken ribs. “It was right after I came out of the hospital that we noticed the [cattle] were missing,” he said.

In this instance, Sandmeier lost 13 pairs (that’s 13 cows, each with a calf) out of a herd totaling 96 cows and calves. He figures such a haul would require at least two trailer loads to move. This theft constitutes a loss of well over $25,000, and that’s before the cost of purchasing new breeding cows to replace those that were taken.

About four or five days elapsed between Sandmeier’s injury and the discovery that cattle were missing. During that time, he says rain made it impossible to find any particular clues that may have been left.

Sandmeier, like many ranchers, did not immediately suspect theft. He explained why.

“As the weeks went on, I kept thinking they’d turn up somewhere,” Sandmeier said. “Maybe they just got in with someone else’s cattle, or drifted off a ways. With the heat it’s not uncommon, when those cattle get out they have to find water.”

One of the first things Sandmeier did upon realizing he had missing cattle was to contact his neighbors. “I called [Vaughn Thorstenson] and his guys right away, because they border me — and that’s usually normal procedure,” he said. “Give everybody the heads up so that when they got out and check, they can keep an eye out. The first week I wasn’t too worried — and then as the time went on I came to the realization that I’m probably not getting them back.”

Believe it or not, Sandmeier realized his cattle were missing pretty quickly. While a few days may seem like a long time, ranchers can often go weeks or even months without noticing a handful of missing cattle.

This can be chalked up to the size of the land that these cattle roam. The USDA says that in Campbell County, 48% of farms are larger than 1,000 acres. For those unfamiliar, 1,000 acres shakes out to a little over 1.5 square miles.

The terrain is also a factor. “In that specific area where my cattle and Vaughn’s cattle are at, there’s quite a few miles between farm yards there, and there’s not a lot of roads,” Sandmeier said. Much of the area is also hilly, and closer to the river you’d find stands of trees as well.

Adding to the difficulty is that, especially for larger herds, ranchers don’t often round every animal up for a count. For many, cattle are rounded up for occasions such as moving pastures, vaccinations, branding and weening, and some of these are done at the same time, meaning a full count is at times taken only a few times a year.

The time that can accrue between a theft and the discovery of it is one of the things that can make attempting to recover the cattle very difficult. Campbell County Sheriff Lacey Perman spoke briefly with KELOLAND News over the phone on Thursday about this, noting that tracking down leads can be very difficult when the cattle have been missing for weeks before being discovered.

Perman says that the Sheriff’s Office does an investigation and then passes the matter along to the state brand inspector, though they will continue to assist when needed.

As for the brand inspectors, the state has over 110 inspectors… but only 2 east of the Missouri River.

This is due to an oddity of state law which sees all land west of the Missouri fall into a brand inspection area where all cattle sold must be inspected, and no inspection required east of the Missouri.

“I’ve always wished that the east side of the river had brand inspections,” said Jon Haefner.

Haefner is another Campbell County rancher. Last year, he lost 10 calves out a group of 50. His situation mirrors that of Sandmeier’s one a year later. He and his hired man, Dillon Means rounded the calves up and noticed they seemed to be missing some.

“We knew one had died,” said Haefner, “so we’re 10 calves short.” Convinced they’d just missed some in their count, he and Means drive through the pasture again. “It was quite dry last year, so they’re easy to see — the grass wasn’t very tall,” he continued. “We worked what we had and drove through one more time.”

They found nothing, once again.

Just as with Sandmeier, Haefner’s mind did not go immediately to theft. “We thought the calves might be in with the neighbors,” he said, though he noted that this was unlikely since the cows were still there. Often a cow will follow its calf if it were to move away from the group.

Haefner said his man Means went around and visited with all the neighbors, and none of them had seen the calves.

The calves never turned up, and to Haefner’s regret, he never reported them stolen. “It’s so late now — there’s no leads,” he said. “I did very much regret not visiting with the sheriff.”

Means outlined the reason that many may be reticent to report missing cattle as stolen.

“You don’t report them because you don’t want to be the guy to cry wolf,” Means said. “If we called every time we missed cattle — I mean we’d be on the phone all the time with the sheriff. We have land along the river, and there’s trees and there’s breaks — you can’t get everything out.”

The point is, you don’t want to falsely raise the specter of theft if there’s a chance your missing cows are growing fat and happy in a tangle of trees down by the bank of the river for a month.

Haefner has around 1,400 head of cattle. With the amount of land they range over, it can be easy to convince yourself that your missed count is just that — a miscount.

The size of the land also makes it hard to stop thieves.

“[It would be] pretty difficult,” said Means. “Me and Jon just talked about it this morning — I mean if we had a small operation, year it would be easy — the only best solution that we’ve talked about would be security systems.”

But security systems are expensive. Often prohibitively so, and in any case, where do you point the camera or sensor? You can put a camera at your gate, but what if someone moves down the road and cuts the fence?

A fairly small pasture area — one-quarter section — is about a quarter of a square mile. The perimeter of a quarter section like this would constitute one full mile of fence line, and again, this is a fairly small pasture area. Monitoring this with electronics would cost a lot.

One thing often recommended is simply watching out for your neighbor, but even this can be a challenge.

“If you see something, you gotta say something,” said Means, but the hard thing about that is — we have to do nighttime stuff — if the neighbor’s called everything in they see at night, our local sheriff’s phone would be ringing off the hook. It’s hard to find the balance of ‘is that our neighbors doing something, or is that someone else in their pasture?'”

Overall, Haefner laments what he sees as the creep of crime into his sparsely populated neck of the woods.

“I feel we’ve kind of been immune from a lot of problems,” Haefner said. “We’re somewhat remote up here and we just haven’t had, in the past, to deal with a lot of the stuff that’s starting to go on.”

Haefner said he never felt the need to lock his house until about a year ago; he never felt the need to take his keys out of his vehicles. “It’s like crime is starting to move into these rural areas, even more so than it had,” he said.

However, the suspicion across the region seems to be that not all of those doing these crimes are coming from beyond the community.

Thorstenson’s property was targeted during the fair when his main hired man was away from the farm. Sandmeier was in the hospital around the time that his cattle were taken.

“With some of this, there has to be some local involvement,” Haefner said. “Just to know where the cattle are, and when they’ve been checked.”

Thorstenson and Sandmeier’s cases also indicate these thieves may also know not just where the cattle are, but also where those who watch them are… and when they’re vulnerable.

Nobody wants to think that their neighbors may be the ones stealing from them, and indeed, not one person spoken to in covering this topic pointed a finger at those surrounding them.

But the question remains; who is doing this?

Means pointed out that the people committing these crimes likely must have some experience with livestock, needing to be able to round them up and herd them into trailers, which they also must have to haul the stolen animals.

Means, toward the end of his interview, sought to drive home the effect that these thefts have on the victims.

“These old-timers — I’m not talking about myself. I’m still young and spry — but some of these old guys are out there all night long calving heifers in the rain; in the mud; in the snow,” said Means. “They put their lives out there to keep these cattle alive, and when you take them off the grass, that’s when you relax — you get to sit back and look like ‘alright, I did it’, and then you’ve got to worry about guys going out there and stealing them.”

Attempting to recover stolen cattle is a difficult and often fruitless task for many of the reasons listed above. If you have any information related to stolen livestock, contact local law enforcement or the South Dakota Brand Board at (605) 773-3324.