Cattle Rustling Makes a Major Comeback

Driven by the recession, cattle rustlers are stealing lucrative livestock.

Aug. 10, 2009— -- Life on the ranch has a rhythm. The days are long, beginning before sunrise. The work is hard under the unrelenting summer sun, and the chores are endless.

The rancher's rest comes only when the sun finally disappears. Nights on the ranch are peaceful.

But something has interrupted that rhythm, something that has Oklahoma rancher Jeff Emerson up at night.

"It's a feeling like someone broke into your house ... kicking your door in and stealing your stereo," he said. "Only mine is a four-legged stereo ... it's a hell of a stereo, though."

Emerson is very much a victim of a crime right out of the Old West. In a period of 90 days, he says, about 30 of his specially bred cattle have vanished.

"We get about $3,000 an animal, so I'm out about 90 to 100 grand," he said. "It's really tough on a small business man ... and that's really what I am."

Emerson and his wife, Chris, own an organic food store in Tulsa, where they sell hormone-free steaks from the cattle they raise just a few miles away. As he says, getting Oklahomans to go organic is tough enough without someone stealing so much of his product.

"You might as well rob a bank," he said. "It's easier and it is air conditioned, and they get out here in the heat and the weeds and the mulch and the blood and the manure ... and steal a cow," he said. "Why in the world do they want to work so hard?"

Ted Allen of Bixby, Okla., has spent every one of his 78 years on a ranch. He thought cattle rustling existed only in the Westerns he loves to watch. Then, rustlers ripped off a dozen of his beloved cows last year.

"I couldn't believe anybody would steal a cow," he said. "Just didn't make sense to me ... but when you can't find them, and they can't fly, somebody had to help them."

Cattle Rustling and the Economy

Cattle rustling has made a major comeback. In Texas alone, more than 6,000 head of cattle were stolen last year -- that's triple the number from the year before. This year is set to break records in ranching states across the West.

"I don't think it's good people out there stealing for their children to eat," Allen said. "I think it's hoodlums taking advantage of easy money."

Maybe so, but the special rangers assigned to catch cattle rustlers say the crime has everything to do with the recession.

"Cattle rustling is definitely here, and I think it's here to stay," said special ranger Brent Mast of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. "We have a lot of people who are out of work, and I think thieves have kind of figured out it's pretty good money."

Lucrative Profits for Thieves

Veteran cowboy Bill Cawley of Willis, Texas, says cattle rustlers can do it in a matter of minutes armed with little more than a bag of feed.

"The thief doesn't need a horse, he doesn't need dogs," Cawley said. "He needs a paper sack. He can put a couple of rocks in the sack and shake it, and those cows will come straight into the pen. He can load up two or three calves if he knows what he is doing. And once he pulls on the state highway, he is home free."

The thief's next stop? A cattle auction. This is one of the only crimes where a thief can count on getting full price -- up to $1,000 a head.

It's difficult to know if a cow is stolen. Behind the scenes, inspectors take note of brands and rangers look for anything suspicious. Sometimes they get lucky.

"I had a case a couple of years ago," Mast said. "Guy showed up in a little subcompact, opened up the trunk, and they pulled out two calves. That was kind of a clue they were stolen."

But, for the most part, stopping this crime is the responsibility of the rancher, which is why they've added another ritual to the day -- counting cattle. They do it religiously to make sure they haven't lost any more.

"I never did lock anything, but this is going to force us to," Allen said. "You lock up a gate and a cheap pair of pliers will cut the fence."

Emerson said, "We are going to force them to cut the fence. The good thing is we are patrolling the fences two or three times a day, day or night. If you find it cut, there's a pretty good chance they are in there right then."

And if a cattle rustler gets caught red-handed, look out.

"A man would hate to shoot somebody over a lousy cow, but I probably would," Allen said, "and I hit what I shoot at."