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Drone on the Range


Cattle rustling is a staple of western movies and TV shows. Movie heroes like John Wayne and Roy Rogers routinely had to cope with rustlers. They often engaged in furious chases on horseback and lots of gunfire. But cattle rustling is not fictional. It has a long and troubled history in North Dakota.

Over the winter of 1897 - 1898, cattlemen sustained heavy losses from rustlers. The thieves routinely rounded up cattle in Montana. They drove them into North Dakota where they changed the brand. They would then sell the cattle as their own. Tired of being victimized by the thieves, a number of cowboys from different outfits banded together about this time of year in 1898. They developed a plan to put an end to the rustling. The Grand Forks Herald reported on a running battle between the cowboys and rustlers.

As had been their habit, the rustlers rounded up cattle in Montana. But this time it was different. They were surprised by a large groups of cowboys who opened fire on them. The rustlers shot back. One of the thieves was killed and a cowboy injured. Determined to get away with the loot, the rustlers drove the cattle across the border into North Dakota. But the cowboys gave chase, determined to retrieve the cattle, even if that meant killing all the rustlers.

But cattle rustling is not just a problem of the past. The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association reports that 150 to 300 cattle are stolen in a typical year. That may not seem like a large loss, but with the high value of cattle, it adds up quickly. Now cattlemen have called in some high tech help.

In June, 2011 Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke went looking for missing cattle. He was chased off by men brandishing rifles. He called for the assistance of the Highway Patrol, a SWAT team, and deputy sheriffs. He also called in a Predator drone. The unmanned aircraft circled overhead and pinpointed the suspects. Police moved in and arrested them. It was the first time cattle rustlers were thwarted with the help of a drone.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


AgWeek. “No big spike in rustling cases.” http://www.agweek.com/event/article/id/24533/group/agribusiness/ Accessed 18 December, 2014.

Earth Imaging Journal. “Cattle Rustling Family Nabbed by Drone.” http://eijournal.com/news/industry-insights-trends/cattle-rustling-family-nabbed-by-drone Accessed 18 December, 2014.

Grand Forks Herald. “Lively Battle: Montana Cowboys Find a Band of Cattle Thieves with Stolen Stock.” 4 February, 1898.