OGDEN — For the past seven years, Erin Clelland has been hopping into a pickup truck and bringing her best tools to the job: her eyes and a pair of workman's gloves.
Her office is the livestock yard, and the object of her attention is the often-bellowing cattle — the Herefords, the Holsteins, the Jerseys and more. Throw in a few horses, and you can call it a day.
In the heat, in the dust, amid manure and cowboys, Clelland, a brand inspector for the state Department of Agriculture, looks piercingly at each arriving type of livestock, checking the brand to ensure rightful ownership.
Branding is an ancient practice, depicted in 4,000-year-old Egyptian tomb paintings displaying scenes of branding and cattle roundups.
And as early as 1537, Spaniards established the first "brand" book in the Western Hemisphere, requiring every cattle owner to come up with a unique brand and register that marking.
The tradition and law continue today, a system of identification similar to registering a motor vehicle — a process that protects the owner and buyer and assists regulators in tracking property should it become stolen.
Livestock owners register their brand with the state — identifying information that has to accompany any sale of horses, mules or cattle that graze on public lands.
Prior to an animal's acceptance into any auction, Clelland and other state brand inspectors across Utah conduct a quick visual surveillance of the animal's hindquarters, ribs or shoulders to determine if the information submitted matches reality.
At this week's Weber Livestock Auction in Ogden, between 600 and 700 animals were "inspected" prior to the daylong sale. Summer is typically a slow time for livestock transactions, so that number can easily quadruple in the fall at the Weber auction, as ranchers try to unload spring calves or old bulls whose reproductive days are over.
Clelland is one of several brand inspectors who staff auctions throughout the state, ensuring the transactions are legal. In Utah, there are 880,000 cattle, which can be difficult to track without branding.
"We look at every side of the animal," she said. "Top, bottom, all the away around."
The brands help deter cattle rustling, which still occurs in the industry, and also serve as a way to track owners.
A promotional flier for the department shows a cow stuffed into a mailbox, informing owners that brands are the only "return address" for wayward livestock.
Clelland, as part of her duties, assists the state Department of Transportation at its Perry port-of-entry, just south of Brigham City.
State law requires all transporters of livestock to stop at the ports, where workers check health information and proof of ownership papers.
For most livestock, those papers are the owner's "brand card" issued by the state. Members of the cattle industry are aware of the requirements and typically have their paperwork ready.
If a livestock hauler blows past the port and fails to stop, Clelland is in pursuit.
While many first-time offenders escape punishment with just a warning, flagrant port busters can get fined up to $100 an incident and $2 a head.
While most cattle are branded, regardless of where they range, branding is far less common among what Clelland calls "backyard" horses.
The department has an educational campaign urging all horse owners to get their animals branded because it is a quick way to ensure rightful ownership.
Clelland said many horse owners, who may be transporting an animal from Logan to southern Utah for a wilderness ride for example, are blind-sided by the requirement that they demonstrate legitimate ownership.
"It seems like there are a million backyard no-brand animals out there."
UDOT workers have been cross-trained with the Department of Agriculture to spot discrepancies that may flag issues of questionable ownership.
While horse owners do have the inside of the animal's lip marked with an identifying tattoo or have a microchip implanted, those identifiers serve little purpose at auctions that cycle in hundreds of animals in any given day.
"We just don't have the manpower to pull back every lip of (every) horse. And the animal is already stressed. You're adding more stress to the situation."
Because of the variety of microchips out there, it's impractical to have a scanner on hand to ensure the real owner is trying to unload the animal.
"Unless we thought something was wrong, we'd probably let a transaction go through," Clelland said. "I tell people, 'Trust everyone, but brand your livestock.' "