The Cow Cops

By Tay Wiles

High Country News

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.

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.

Continue to full article . . .

Picture: Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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