Brand investigators let ranchers down


Last month our KELOLAND News Investigation into “The Great Cattle Heist,” showed you the highly organized and highly profitable crime. Cattle rustling has been likened to how a drug cartel operates, and has been going on for decades in South Dakota, with very little being done to stop it.

KELOLAND Investigates discovered that out of the hundreds of missing cattle reported to the South Dakota Brand Board over the last three years, only 20 percent of those animals are ever recovered. Both new and previous victims of cattle theft say they’re fed up with the Brand Board and its lack of action.

42 Head of Cattle Missing in April

Coy and Liz Fisher operate a 10,000-acre ranch near Scenic, South Dakota; just a few miles onto the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The Fisher Ranch on the Pine Ridge Reservation, near Scenic, SD

“Every year we’re missing two to five head of cows,” Coy Fisher said.

But last spring, it wasn’t just few head of cows that went missing. 21 cows, all with calves–for a total of 42–vanished without a trace.

The Fishers went up in a friend’s plane to look for them.

“We got down real low where we could read the brands and we did a ten-mile radius of our land and we couldn’t find nothing,” Coy said.

“We immediately called the South Dakota Brand Board,” Liz Fisher said.

That’s because they pay to register their brands with the South Dakota Brand Board. The board currently has one livestock investigator listed on its website.

Because the Fisher ranch is located on the reservation, they also called the Oglala Lakota authorities.

Fisher’s Frustrations with SD Brand Board

“I did all my due diligence there, making reports to all of those agencies. They all assured me they would do what they could. So then we waited. Nobody called, nobody helped,” LIz said.

Liz says the Brand Board told her information on their missing cattle had been put out to sale barns across the state and the proper authorities.

The Fisher’s report of 42 missing or stolen cattle is on the Brand Board’s website from May of this year. But that was not available on the website until KELOLAND Investigates contacted the Brand Board in September and asked if we could see updated missing reports from 2019 through year-to-date.

After no response, Liz says she called the Brand Board again and was told she could call the FBI herself to report it, which she did, but never heard back.

The Brand Board told KELOLAND News in an email that because of the location of the Fisher’s ranch, the jurisdiction is tribal and federal.

“This went on throughout the whole summer. Meanwhile, we’re doing our own investigation, trying desperately all summer long to find our cattle,” Liz said.

Family Offers Own Reward

The Fishers offered a $10,000 reward for any information leading to the recovery of their cattle. They claim that the Brand Board failed to alert anyone to be on the lookout for them.

“We were talking to brand inspectors throughout our own investigating. And every time we’d talk to somebody, they would say, well that’s the first we’ve heard of it,” Liz said.

The Director of the South Dakota Brand Board says inspectors were aware of the case.

“They were advised of the jurisdiction; who they should contact. The Brand Board and livestock enforcement officer did notify the full-time brand inspectors and do other networking things as far as assisting them,” Debbie Trapp, Director of the South Dakota Brand Board, said.

Rosebud Reservation Rancher Recounts His Own Experience with SD Brand Board

“We gave up on the Brand Board 25 years ago because they wouldn’t do anything,” Joe Kary said.

Joe Kary runs a ranch on the Rosebud Reservation in Parmelee, South Dakota. He says he’s been paying to register several brands that have been in his family for 70 years. Kary says he experienced similar problems for years.

Joe Kary at his ranch on the Rosebud Reservation

“We were having a very serious problem with people butchering our cattle and taking the hind two quarters off leaving the rest to rot,” Kary said.

Kary says neither the brand board, nor any law enforcement agencies did anything about it at the time.

Kary: Finally in frustration, we simply quit calling on the Brand Board asking them for any kind of help, and just kind of had to start taking matters into our own hands.

Kennecke: Did you ever get it resolved on your own then?
Kary: They’re not butchering our cows any more. But I carry a hell of a lot bigger gun than I did back in those days.

However, ranchers say they don’t want to have to return to the wild west, which is why they pay the Brand Board to register their brands.

FBI Steps In

Liz Fisher called the Attorney General’s office asking for help, who in turn called the Brand Board.

“Finally I just came unglued at the Brand Board, I really did. I really got stern and upset with them and I said you need to call the FBI. You needed to do it in May. And 45 minutes later we got a call from an FBI agent and Rapid City and we said, this is the first we’ve heard of it. We’re on it,” Liz Fisher said.

“They should have called the FBI from the start. We had a damn good tip and they just sat on it,” Coy Fisher said.

KELOLAND Investigates spoke with one of the long-time brand inspectors who said, on the condition he remain anonymous, that once a case is handed over to the Brand Board Investigator, nothing much is done. He says he’s even had evidence in cases of theft that he’s turned over to the investigator, but nobody has followed up. He says all of the brand inspectors are frustrated by the lack of effort the Brand Board puts into investigations.

Kennecke: Do you feel like people who are paying to register their brands are getting their money’s worth when the cattle go missing?
Trapp: We are continuing to do improvements in that area. It may feel like nothing’s getting done, we can’t really put a road map out there to say all the specific things we’re doing, but I can assure them things are getting done.

The Fisher’s estimate their loss at about $45,000. But it’s not just about the money.

“I’ve been sick for the last four months And the sad thing about it, my daughter–my 16-year-old daughter–just took out a youth loan from FSA and she bought five cows and they took one of her cows. How’s she going to make her payment just starting out?”

Rancher Coy Fisher, on cattle stolen from his land

“If the Brand Board or somebody would have done this in May, maybe we could have recovered our cattle. Our cattle, I’m sure, are long gone now. And what we’re hoping for right now is justice, and to stop this from happening again,” Liz said.

Investigators moved out from under DCI

Since 2011, brand investigators were under the DCI, but funded by the Brand Board. The Brand Board brought an emergency bill before the legislature in the last session to bring those positions back under the board and give them law enforcement powers. The Brand Board says its chief brand inspector is now also law enforcement certified. Trapp says they may hire two more enforcement officers with board approval.

Drone and branding/sorting video courtesy of John Powell

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