The thieves are so brazen that they're stealing copper wire off poles in broad daylight, in sight of Montana's busiest interstate.
Copper prices have more than doubled in recent years, and after two years of quiet, thieves have made at least seven raids in four weeks on copper wire strung along railroad tracks from Huntley to Laurel.
"We see thievery whenever metal prices go up," said Yellowstone County Sheriff Capt. Bill Michaelis. "But this has been quite an increase this past month."
Normally, sheriff's deputies respond to one or two copper thefts per month.
Last Monday between 8 and 8:30 p.m., someone stole wire between Billings and Laurel along Montana Rail Link's right-of-way running parallel to Interstate 90.
On Wednesday, someone ran off with wire in the same area between 8 and 10 a.m. These two thefts will cost MRL at least $7,500, including the labor and wire to make the repairs.
Suspects are being questioned in Wednesday's theft, Michaelis said, but no charges have been filed.
"When we have so many separate thefts in the daylight hours in a short time, that's something to take note of," said Lynda Frost, MRL spokeswomen in Missoula. "We're hoping somebody might see them and report back to us."
Burlington Northern Santa Fe spokesman Gus Melonas in Seattle declined to say how many times his railroad has suffered copper wire losses around Billings or what the financial hit was.
But he said BNSF is investigating copper theft across its system and is cracking down on trespassers because of the theft problem and accidents when people get too close to trains.
"We are aggressively pursuing anybody trespassing on our property, whether leisurely walking or engaging in vandalism," he said. "It is criminal trespassing to be on the railroad right-of-way."
More than $1 billion worth of copper is stolen each year in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Department. The problem has grown so fast that businesses have set up a national Coalition Against Copper Theft to push for federal legislation against a crime that the group says "jeopardizes our nation's crucial infrastructure."
Criminals steal copper wire from telephone lines, construction sites, businesses, electrical substations, agriculture equipment such as irrigation pivots and even homes.
MRL's largest theft was seven years ago around Plains when someone stole 10,000 feet of copper wire worth at least $10,000. The wire was sitting wrapped on spools by the tracks during a system upgrade, so the thieves had to use machinery to load the wire, according to Pete Lawrenson, a former Missoula police chief and now MRL's security chief.
For the past decade, wire theft has been largely a Western Montana problem, he said. Then two years ago, MRL had about 20 thefts in one month between Columbus and Livingston. After the railroad set up a task force to patrol the area and installed covert surveillance devices, the spree stopped.
"It led me to believe these people were monitoring our moves on the scanner," Lawrenson said.
Everything stayed pretty quiet for two years.
"Then about a month ago they started stealing the copper wires right off our poles," he said.
The wires strung along the tracks control railroad signals and switches.
"They cut the wire and it will change the signal indicator when the next train comes through," Lawrenson said. "This can be a very severe safety issue."
So far, MRL's backup systems, including batteries, have prevented any train mishaps, he said.
Recycled pure copper that is shiny as new was selling for $2.40 a pound Friday at Pacific Steel & Recycling in Billings. Insulated wire fetched 90 cents to $1.20, depending on the diameter of the copper wire.
The stolen wire may be sold to a Billings area person who takes a cut and then resells it through a national ring, Lawrenson said.
Local recyclers — Pacific Steel and Golden Steel & Recycling — have been great to deal with, Lawrenson said.
"If someone comes in with something that appears to be railroad property, they let us know immediately and work with us to identify the suspect," he said.
After the economic recession caused a spike in metal theft, the 2009 Montana Legislature passed a law requiring recycling companies to check IDs.
Anyone selling $50 or more of non-ferrous metals such as copper or brass must produce identification that is scanned and attached to receipts.
"We want to stop it and not create a market for stolen materials," said Pacific Steel manager Marshall Knick.
Golden Recycling also requires IDs for large-quantity sales.
Washington state has some of the strictest laws, Knick said, requiring recycling companies to hold on to non-ferrous metals for up to one month in case of theft.
"We don't want to get into that deal in Montana," he said.
In any case, Lawrenson said, these are the swan song days for copper wire thieves targeting railroad communication lines.
"We're about halfway through a 10-year program to go wireless, basically by sending electrical frequencies through the rails," Lawrenson said.