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LEWISTON, Idaho - The terms cattle rustler and horse thief conjure up dusty images of the Old West. But state brand inspectors say livestock theft remains a problem.

One recent case is on its way to trial in Sandpoint, where a 24-year-old Sagle man is charged with nine counts of grand theft after a number of horses missing from farms in Montana and Idaho were found in his possession.

Like many animals recovered by brand inspectors and law enforcement officials, the horses were found because one carried one of the 24,000 brands registered in Idaho.

"If you brand your animals it will bring them home," said Jim Herridge, district supervisor for brand inspection offices in the 10 northern Idaho counties. "A thief won't steal a branded animal. If they do, it's a mistake because they didn't see it."

Herridge said the horse in the Sandpoint case had a faint brand that could not be seen until the animal was clipped. A thief would not have known about it, but because the animal was registered, inspectors did.

Horse thieves are encouraged by the fact that many of the animals are worth $5,000 to $10,000, said Herridge. Horses brought to slaughter are worth 60 cents a pound - or $600 for a 1,000-pound animal.

Brand inspectors recover $3.5 million worth of cattle in Idaho each year, Herridge said. Not all of them are stolen; some are strays and others have gotten mixed up with different herds.

However, each fall five to 10 head are reported butchered on the range. People usually kill one or two animals at a time, he said, taking the carcass for meat.

Brand inspectors work closely with surrounding states. They also conduct field inspections at livestock sales and monitor animals shipped out of the country. In the fall they join law enforcement officers in checking hunting horses coming in and out of the area.

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