In a county pasture awash in late fall sunlight and surrounded by the distant La Plata Mountains, Chad Moore ambles on horseback through a herd of slow-moving cattle.
With the herd owner, Shane Truby, Moore surveys each animal for Truby’s brand – an arch above an underscored cross.
Moore, a regional brand inspector, rarely gets a break this time of year.
During the busiest season, from the end of August to January, he spends most days, often from sunup to sundown, inspecting cattle, horses, mules, donkeys and all manner of livestock to verify they’re with their rightful owners.
“When it starts, it doesn’t stop,” said Moore, 39, and almost 10 years an inspector. “This job is hard on family, especially during the fall run. You can’t make it to all the school events and sporting events.”
At this time of year, many herds are shipping to New Mexico for winter forage, and even in the “off-season,” herds are in motion, changing hands or going to slaughter.
Considered Type II law enforcement, as a brand inspector Moore drives more than 20,000 miles each year through his jurisdiction, which includes La Plata, San Juan and Archuleta counties as well as southern Hinsdale and Mineral counties. He’s responsible for inspecting herds traveling more than 75 miles, changing ownership or leaving the state, as well as some that graze public lands.
Though he cares nothing for accolades, in January the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association named Moore Brand Inspector of the Year, crediting him for keeping ranchers informed when the Gold King Mine spill cast a shadow of uncertainty and alarm over the region.
“What I hoped was helpful – a lot of people didn’t understand that few cattle drink out of the Animas River. They drink out of tributaries to the Animas. I wanted to help people understand that,” he said.
A native of central Oregon, Moore didn’t grow up among ranchers but gravitated to that type of work. He started riding broncs in high school, and in his junior or senior year moved from home into a bunk house to work at Big Muddy Ranch, an 84,000-acre spread in central Oregon.
He left the state in 1996 to join the infantry, where he spent five years followed by six in the Army Reserves. Part of that time was spent at Fort Carson, his introduction to Colorado.
The notion of brand inspecting manifested while he was working on a ranch in south-central Colorado, which was hit hard by drought in the early 2000s. Moore saw there were no cowhands without cows and went looking for more stability. He found it in Southwest Colorado, a region others in the profession pass up for larger cattle hubs.
“I always enjoyed being around cattle and horses. It fits,” said Moore, who now lives in Bayfield with his wife and children. “I’ve only enjoyed two things – the U.S. Army and cowboying. I get to be around livestock and a lot of good people.”
And people are often as much a part of the job as livestock.
Moore was there when a terminally ill girl, through the Make-a-Wish Foundation, got her wish: her own horse. He said “keeping his composure” was one of the hardest things he’s done on the job.
Other calls err on the side of ridiculous.
“I remember an old fellow got aggravated because an old heifer kept showing up at his place,” Moore said. “I got the hair clippers and found his own brand on the cow. He said he’d pay me not to say anything. I said I’ll never tell anyone your name, but something like that will be kind of hard to keep quiet.
“I should have started a journal,” he said. “When you think you’ve heard and seen it all, something new pops up.”
Missing or stolen livestock, disease and illness, and price fluctuations all add up for the ranchers. Added to the $20 service charge for a cattle inspection, plus $1 per head when the herd changes ownership, and ranching can be financially dicey. Brand inspectors see the business risk in ranching firsthand as bucolic La Plata County pushes up against its growing, bustling hub.
“I think about it every day,” Moore said on the diminishing ranching lifestyle, but he was disinclined to elaborate.
“I will say this: I do see a lot of neat places, amazing ranches. It’s sad to see them go by the wayside,” he said. “I am a pretty big fan of wide open areas.”