CASPER, Wyo. - Wade Werbelow has some horsehair to find.
After reading recent reports that the incidents of tail clippings had seeped into Fremont and Sweetwater counties in Wyoming, in addition to Natrona and Converse, Werbelow decided it was time to talk to local law enforcement. Instead, they called him first.
"I just pretty much started my investigation this morning," said Werbelow, an inspector for the Wyoming Livestock Board, on Wednesday. "We're basically going to get a hold of all the counties that have incidents, gather information, keep track of it, and see what we come up with."
Werbelow said officials from the affected counties tentatively plan to meet next week and discuss any similarities in the recent events. The current ticker hovers near 100, with Natrona County shouldering the bulk of the shears at 61 horses. About 30 have been reported in Converse County, eight to 10 in Fremont and two in Sweetwater, according to authorities in the respective locations. Media reports indicated three more horses were cut in Campbell County earlier this month.
So far, officials from the Natrona County Sheriff's Office say they have little to go on, as the dates, locations and colors associated with the haircuts have been sporadic, at best.
They recently compiled an incident occurrence map, intended to help visualize a pattern of events.
"This tells us the pattern is very random," said Lt. Gus Holbrook. The few trends they noticed may have been those of convenience. Most of the horses lived in areas that were relatively obscure from any likely neighborhood watch, but within easy driving distance.
"We're not getting any reports clear out in the country," he said.
He's also detected one curious quirk in timing.
Holbrook pointed to a calendar in his office, which features highlighted cross-out dates of when the incidents occurred. Aside from one Friday and one Sunday, the equine barbers appear to enjoy taking the two days off. Saturdays and Mondays through Thursdays accumulated a disproportionately large share of neon pink ink in the past 60 days.
Holbrook said officials are following leads, but there are no suspects to date.
A black market?
"It's a valuable commodity," said Fremont County Sheriff's Capt. Ryan Lee. Lee said while there are reputable businesses that buy and sell horsehair, "I'm sure there's a black market out there, too."
Although similar reports have surfaced around the country, and in previous years in Wyoming, many fail to recall an epidemic of this magnitude.
Pat Raia, equine welfare reporter for The Horse, said she reported on a few incidents in Massachusetts last year, but many assumed it was a local artist who used the hair to create his or her craft.
"If somebody's stealing it in bulk, they're probably selling it," she said.
Following the final 2007 closures of U.S. horse slaughtering plants, byproducts such as tails have waned in recent years, and many reputable horsetail sellers have shifted their focus to overseas suppliers.
"We get most of ours from China," said Cheryl Litton, who works at Ohio-based M&M Turf Supply. "People have contacted us before and have said, 'I have this big farm, I have all these tails.' We say, 'No thank you.'"
Import regulations require the tails have been cleaned, sanitized and purged of insects.
Some have speculated that the slaughterhouse closures could have triggered the black market.
"I can tell you there is probably a grain of truth to that," said state Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse, who hopes to build a slaughterhouse in Riverton by next year.
Wallis said horsehair prices have increased significantly since the closures, but she wouldn't jump to the conclusion that the closures caused the illegal trade. Wallis said regardless of the premium, some people probably just look to make an easy profit.
"I guess I mean that criminals are criminals," she said. "If they see an opportunity to go steal it, they will."
Wyoming authorities hope to cut off the market soon.
Holbrook said there have been extra patrols in vulnerable areas, and he hopes the meeting with county officials will shed light on similarities.
However, he said he is relying the most heavily on neighbors looking out for each other.
Holbrook asks that if anyone sees anything suspicious, to call 911.
"To put a stop to it, we'll need the public's help," he said.