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Utah rancher Eric Lyman lost a total of two cows and three calves to shootings last summer, animals left for dead in Twelve Mile Canyon where they grazed.
He’s tried to figure out who was responsible. A group of livestock producers offered a reward, he spoke to ATV riders who crisscrossed the same land as his cattle, he said, and people with trail cams in the area kept their eyes peeled for suspicious activity. No one was ever able to tell them what happened or who was at fault.
That’s not even what Lyman finds most frustrating about the shootings.
“The frustrating part is that somebody would take a gun and shoot something that’s just standing there looking at them,” he said. “For no rhyme or reason.”
These types of animal killings — sometimes intentional and sometimes accidental — are relatively rare in Utah, usually occurring only a couple times a year, state officials say. But last year through the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of these incidents skyrocketed for reasons experts and industry members can only guess, with dozens of animals dying around the state.
A state animal industry specialist, Leann Hunting, studied the shootings for patterns that might help explain the spike and found that they weren’t concentrated in any single region and targeted different species.
At one point, she wondered if the pandemic-driven meat shortages were fueling the increase. That didn’t make sense either, though, because almost none of the shooters took any meat, and most animals were just left lying where they fell.
“In my opinion, I think there’s a bunch of kids that need their butts kicked,” Randy Revoir, a livestock producer, said to explain the wave of shootings.
Wade Garrett of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation said his family, too, was among those who lost livestock last year; his father nearly caught the shooters red-handed, missing them by just 10 minutes.
In that case, the family ultimately found the culprit — a teenager who went out shooting with his friends and boasted that he thought he could hit a cow. The youth’s friends ended up turning him in for the reward money, Garrett said.
The bullet didn’t kill the cow, which had delivered a calf five or six days before that, according to Garrett. His father ultimately had to put her down to stop her suffering.
“They are meat animals,” he said. “But we take a lot of pride and care deeply about our cattle.”
The state might see one or two livestock shootings in a normal year, according to Hunting, director of animal industry at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. In 2020, there were nearly 50.
“To graph it, it is just an enormous spike,” Hunting said.
She said she’d considered whether the meat shortages might have something to do with the trend, while various livestock producers who spoke with The Tribune speculated about factors ranging from teenage boredom to a surge in hunting and outdoor recreation during the pandemic.
Hunting found commonalities in a handful of cases, but nothing that would explain the larger statewide trend. Some shooters were targeting cattle, while others took aim at horses. The incidents happened in private pastures and on public lands.
“I don’t know what is the motivation,” she said. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
When the state agriculture agency hears about one of these shootings, it works with the local sheriff’s office and associations to gather evidence and spread the word that it’s looking for tips.
Financially speaking, the loss of an animal like a cow has to be measured across years, says Tracy Hatch, president of the Utah Cattlemen’s Association.
“It’s a real big loss,” he said. “They act like it’s just one cow, but that one cow has potential of probably raising 15 calves if she was a young cow. So you start doing the math on that: $800 a head times 15, you’re looking at $12,000 just because of one animal.”
Livestock producers can ill afford those types of monetary hits, said Hatch, who explained that it’s difficult to turn a profit even in a “nice, wet, wonderful year.” Although the price of meat to a consumer continues to go up, those increases don’t flow back toward ranchers, who nevertheless have to reckon with rising fuel expenses and other costs, he continued.
Lyman said though he ranches with his family in various parts of the state, he still has to hold down a job as a postal worker.
“I have to work at the post office to support the habit of being a rancher,” the Salem resident said.
The shootings take a toll in other ways, too, Hunting says.
“There’s also an emotional connection. There are always bad apples in every industry, but … these farmers and ranchers care about these animals,” she said, remembering that her rancher father would bring calves into the bathtub of their home when she was a kid. “It’s devastating to them emotionally as well as financially.”
However, it seems the spurt of animal shootings is fading along with the pandemic, she said, and the state hasn’t recorded a single incident so far in 2021.
‘Laws only go so far’
Though the loss of a cow or bull is a financial blow for ranchers, police don’t always investigate these shootings as they would other significant property crimes, some say. Looking into these shootings can often be difficult because of scant evidence and a lag between when the crime happens and when it’s discovered.
This year, Rep. Casey Snider tried to encourage these investigations, with a bill making it a felony to kill livestock worth $750 or more. Before the change, destroying these animals was only a felony if the total value exceeded $1,500 and was otherwise a misdemeanor offense.
“The courts were basically not taking it seriously,” the Paradise Republican said. “So that’s why we’re just bringing that lower-end threshold down.”
A person could also lose his or her hunting license if convicted of shooting a farm animal, according to the bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Spencer Cox.
The risk of losing a hunting license could be surprisingly successful in dissuading people from shooting cows, horses and sheep, says Garrett of the farm bureau. After all, the Legislature’s recently acted to withhold hunting and fishing privileges from people who are behind on their child support payments, he noted.
Garrett said he’d have thought that a desire to care for your children would be enough to convince someone to stay on top of these payments.
“But losing your hunting rights,” he said, “for better or worse, that seemed to speak to the hardcore hunting crowd.”
Looking for leads
It was late summer when Bill Rose, a seventh-generation rancher in Park Valley, found one of his bulls lying dead by a cattle guard along one of the county roads near his home.
“We have enough reasons they die without people shooting them,” Rose said, estimating that the bull’s value was somewhere between $6,000 and $8,000.
While some complain that overworked sheriff’s offices and police agencies don’t spare much time for these cases, he said his local law enforcement took the investigation seriously. They conducted a necropsy of the bull and searched the area of the assumed shooting for a bullet that could give them a lead.
But Rose said the evidence had degraded by the time they found the animal in an isolated area. They were never able to track down a slug, even by sweeping the area with metal detectors. Eventually, he had to reconcile himself with the fact that he’d probably never find out who did it or get compensated.
Frustrated by the shootings and the lack of accountability for culprits, livestock producers have teamed up and tried to tackle the problem on their own. A few years ago, Revoir and several others banded together to form the Central Utah Livestock Association, which offers a $20,000 reward for information about the killing of an animal belonging to one of their members.
Many of last year’s shootings appeared on the group’s Facebook page — a colt killed in Levan, a calf shot with an arrow in Rich County and a horse named Bob killed in Tooele County.
The group hasn’t yet paid out any rewards. But they’re hopeful the tactic will eventually work, and Garrett of the farm bureau says similar programs have helped solve cases in the past, especially when the perpetrators are groups of teens.
“There is a price where you quit being their friend,” he said.