In the late 1800s and into the 20th Century, stealing a man’s horses or cattle was probably a hanging offense. It was rangeland law. Nowadays, such criminal acts probably won’t get you the noose. But sooner or later, if you’re rustling cattle or horses, or stealing high-dollar ranch or farm equipment, you’ll likely have a room reserved in the county jail or regional prison.
But the temptation is real. Modern-day cattle rustling is a multimillion-dollar racket. And with cattle prices pushing calves’ worth to nearly $200 per hundredweight, and numerous sale barns across Texas and Oklahoma, ranch-savvy crooks may be lurking on a farm-to-market road near your place.
In 2012, Special Rangers for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association recovered more than $4.47 million in stolen livestock and ranch property. “Cattle prices are high, so it’s a very successful endeavor for thieves,” says Larry Gray, executive director of TSCRA Law Enforcement and Theft Prevention Services.
“They can steal cattle and recover what is close to fair-market value in a short period of time. Compare that to ‘fencing’ a large screen television for probably one-fourth of what it’s worth.”
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The Texas Department of Agriculture lists more than 130 livestock auctions statewide. There are more than 70 in Oklahoma. And if livestock can’t be officially identified, they’re extremely hard to distinguish from other cattle herded through the sale ring in a fast and furious manner common at a cattle or horse auction.
Thousands of cattle and horses are stolen annually. It takes a good law enforcement mind and someone who knows the cattle business to locate rustlers, arrest them and get them before a court of law.
TSCRA Special Rangers, 30 unique law enforcement officials in Texas and Oklahoma, ride the range in pursuit of modern-day desperados. They work 30 separate districts and have regional supervisors (see graphic).
“They are certified peace officers commissioned by the Texas Department of Public Safety as Special Rangers in Texas and by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation in Oklahoma,” Gray says. “They’re unique in that they can work across state lines of Oklahoma and Texas. We investigate from 900 to 1,200 cases annually.”
TSCRA statistics show that in 2012, 3,600 cattle valued at more than $3.2 million were recovered or accounted for by special rangers. Horses, trailers, saddles and other livestock and ranch related property recovered by the rangers increased the total to $4.47 million.
That much more is expected to be recovered in 2013, with more incentive for thieves generated by record cattle prices. In Oklahoma, the Tulsa World recently reported 835 cattle thefts through October, 16 percent more than the same period in 2012, when about 700 cattle were stolen during the first 10 months of the year.
Rustlers are ranch handy
Unfortunately, not everyone who grows up on a ranch or farm abides by the law. “The typical thief is always someone with a background in agriculture,” Gray says. “They know how to handle cattle and market them.
“I’ve done this over 30 years and there’s only one cattle thief I can think of who didn't have background in the cattle industry. I remember it because we found Merit cigarette butts and the guy had Merits in his pocket.”
The one thing that often turns rustlers away is a cattle brand. “Branding is still the most effective way to identify cattle and detour theft,” Gray says, noting that ear tag IDs are easily ripped out by thieves, but a brand is permanent. “A lot of thieves pass on branded cattle. Some steal cattle at night, discover they’re branded at daylight, and then dump them. They know branded cattle will likely be identified at the sale barn.”
Documentation is also critical when cattle are placed on leased wheat pasture or under the care of someone else. “We’ve seen cattle sold by the caretaker,” Gray says. “There was no documentation to identify the rightful owner. Producers need to have a written contract stating that no cattle can be sold under any circumstances.”
Another example of rustling involves “secured creditor cases,” Gray adds. “A person goes to a bank and borrows money off cattle and doesn’t pay it back. Those types of cases can be very time consuming due to the paper trail involved.”
Weather disasters also cause problems with cattle identification. As many as 20,000 cattle were misplaced from pastures as a result of Hurricane Ike in 2008. TSCRA worked in cooperation with Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Texas Animal Health Commission and Texas Department of Agriculture to help locate and return cattle to their owners.
You can help in the arrest of cattle rustlers and other ranch property thieves by contacting a TSCRA rustler’s hot line. TSCRA offers a cash reward for information leading to the arrest and/or grand jury indictment of thieves. Anonymity is guaranteed. To provide information, call 888-830-2333.
Your tip won’t get a rustler strung up on the courthouse lawn. But it may help put him behind bars – where he belongs.