Joint Ag Committee considers WLSB bill during fall meetingWritten by Saige Albert
Afton – Legislators from across the state of Wyoming met in Afton on Sept. 14-15 to consider a series of bills for sponsorship by the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee during the 2016 Budget Session of the Wyoming Legislature.
As an anticipated hot topic during the meeting, the Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB) was under scrutiny for their work related to livestock rustling and the law enforcement division. The scrutiny followed testimony from several producers during the May meeting of the committee.
Steve True, WLSB director, described that the agency has been working diligently over the past several months to address concerns of the legislators.
“The Board, staff and I have been working every day to find answers to improve our performance in the law enforcement division,” he commented. “There are a couple of avenues that we are taking.”
Working with sheriffs
As part of his effort to improve the ability of the WLSB to reduce livestock theft and effectively enforce livestock laws, True noted that he has begun to meet with the sheriffs from around the state.
“I have had conversations with two sheriffs in particular and asked them for one deputy who can spend a lot of time with our guys, learn the tricks, rules and regulations and understand what to look for,” True said. “They generally have primacy of investigation, and we count on them tremendously.”
True also noted that he will continue to work with the remaining 21 sheriffs in an array of forums over the next several months.
“I’ve taken the contacts with sheriffs I’ve had so far in a positive manner,” True said.
True also noted that action has been taken over the past several years to prosecute those accused of livestock theft in the last several years. Though many details are protected through criminal statutes, he mentioned that several cases have been successfully prosecuted.
In 2006, 2010, 2011 and 2013, five adults were prosecuted for stealing calves, sheep and horses. In addition, a 2014 case of stolen horses is under investigation and a 2015 case is pending in Uinta County.
“We have had some activity,” True said. “We would like that to improve, and frankly, in our evaluation fired up by the previous meeting, we have found weaknesses in our reporting that I think we have addressed in our new computer system.”
Impacts of computerization
Recent updates to the WLSB law enforcement division’s computerization will also continue to improve the efficiency of the unit. The WLSB recently opted to enroll in a new law enforcement program for their work.
“We are putting new cases in the system, and we are trying to figure out how to update the old cases into the new system without fouling up the record for the prosecution,” True explained.
The system also offers a tool that allows the investigators to track trends in cases that will enable them to more effectively deter livestock crimes.
Input from legislators
Despite the work that has been done, some legislators expressed concerns over the work of the division.
Representative Allen Jaggi of Lyman said, “In Texas, the head of their agency says they have an 80 to 85 percent chance of recovery for branded cattle, and if they aren’t branded that goes to 35 to 40 percent. If we compare that to what has gone on in Wyoming for the money we spent, we are just not getting as much.”
Jaggi also asked True, “Do you feel that you can get a handle on this and turn it around, or should we be doing something else?”
In response, True offered, “I believe we can make a difference, and I think there is enough room for improvement.”
Though the WLSB has made efforts to move forward, Rep. Tyler Lindholm of Sundance moved that the committee sponsor a bill effectively getting rid of the law enforcement division of the agency.
The bill would eliminate the livestock investigator positions and funnel the money previously provided for those positions to a Livestock Investigations Council. The council would utilize the money to train sheriffs throughout the state.
“I bring this forward as an option, considering the testimony we heard after our last meeting,” Lindholm said.
“This piece of legislation calls for exactly what you want to do – work with county sheriffs, but it would get rid of those four investigators,” he said to True. “What is the difference that they are making?”
True noted, however, that the investigators play an important role in mentoring county sheriffs through their livestock knowledge, as well as in investigating livestock cases.
“I value our investigators,” he added. “As long as they are within the agency, we will go ahead full steam, because there is improvement to be made and things we can do.”
Citing concerns that the WLSB has not had adequate time to make changes before the legislators stepped in, the bill failed by a narrow 7-5 margin. Several legislators expressed that if changes are not made moving forward, the bill may be of interest in the future.
“It is not in our make-up, as producers, to sit and wait for someone to tell us what to do,” True said. “Our goal is to push forward as fast as we can to do the best we can at our duties – including protecting producers from theft. We are committed to pushing forward, as long as that is in our statutory tasks.”