by: Clifford Mitchell

Rustlers have been a part of the beef business for as long as it has been documented. Bands of outlaws, or sometimes a rogue trail crew, taking over the herd before it got to the railhead for marketing. Frontier justice often met with a harsh ending and delivered to most the “white hat”: “black hat” drama portrayed in our favorite cowboy movies.

With the invention of barbed wire and more control of the herd, along with central marketing venues, most would say it curbed rustling or at least changed the way thieves think. As market prices started to climb, most law enforcement officials embraced for an epidemic of cattle theft. Numbers of stolen cattle, gotten in the traditional manner, seem somewhat stagnant.

“When prices got up there and held, we expected to see an increase in thefts. A thief didn't have to steal quality to get a good paycheck, but the numbers have held the same as always,” says Carl Bennett, Director of Louisiana Livestock Brand Commission.

Increased market value has changed the outlook for some ranchers. Couple this with the presence of law enforcement officials; it has helped discourage traditional rustlers.

“We have not seen much increase in normal everyday cattle theft. Cattle are so valuable people are keeping up with them better,” says Larry Gray, Director of Special Rangers, Texas Southwest Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA). TSCRA has 29 commissioned peace officers in Texas and Oklahoma.

“It takes a watchful eye to deter theft and cattlemen have tightened their watch,” Bennett says. “Our brand inspectors have marked vehicles, uniform shirts and badges. We are visible and thieves know why we're there. The combination of cattlemen knowing their herds and brand inspection makes it awfully hard for a thief to liquidate stolen cattle.”

The old cowboy flicks or western novels paint a bleak picture of a big man with an eye patch and poor hygiene habits as the leader of the outlaws coming to steal the herd. Today, it may come in the form a slick dressed, smooth talking cattle buyer who gives the honest order buyers a bad name. A simple change in the way the industry markets cattle, opened the door for a new kind of thief.

“We have seen an increase in cases where people contract calves to a buyer and the check is bogus or non-payment occurs after cattle have been delivered,” Bennett says. “A lot of cattle are contracted and cattlemen need to thoroughly check out who you are dealing with. We're in the information age and electronic communication has helped change the way thefts happen.”

“We have seen an increase in fraudulent type cases. Get current banking information from the prospective buyers. Confirm the funds are in the account,” Gray says. “Especially if you are sending cattle out of state, call us let us do a little background check. If there is something bad going on, usually brand inspectors from other states know the name and if there's going to be a problem.”

In some cases of fraudulent behavior, cattlemen should know the details of the law before making any agreements with potential business partners. A little shift in the way business is handled is going to make it harder for cattlemen to collect.

“We have seen an increase in non-payment cases, either a bad check or the payment never comes,” Bennett says. “If a credit arrangement has been made or partial payment is accepted, it is no longer a criminal matter, it's a civil matter. I tell lending institutions to go out and check on their collateral frequently and it amazes me they still don't get the message.”

“If you extend credit, it is a non-criminal matter,” Gray says. “Written verbal agreements that allow them to take property and pay you later have turned into a civil matter. There is not much law enforcement can do to help recover your property or get payment.”

Technological advancements and an infrastructure that is conducive to livestock movement provide distinct challenges in recovering stolen property. Long gone are the days when the outlaws are cutting a wide path while being chased by a well armed Marshall and his posse. Today's law enforcement officials are just as resilient to catch the culprit, but must take advantage of these improvements and use them to their advantage.

“It has changed the way we think as law enforcement officials because there are vast improvements in the way we can haul livestock and an improved interstate system,” Gray says. “Thieves can get cattle out of the area where they stole them and try to market them in other states. It's not uncommon to get a theft report and find cattle in from Texas in Kansas, Oklahoma or Missouri livestock markets.”

“We have to be aware of our surroundings. Cattle theft is spread out more today than it was in the past,” Bennett says. “Cattle can be loaded on a truck and be half way across the country in 24 hours.”

Theft prevention is a multi-tiered, detail oriented task that requires a lot of common sense. It's hard for honest people to think like a thief, but taking the simplest steps could prevent someone from stealing cattle or knowing a crime has been committed.

“Check cattle on a regular basis and know your herd, especially since a lot of the cattle out there have turned black. Be aware of the indicators that a theft might have occurred,” Bennett says. “If you haven't had a good count or report a theft three or four months after it happens, it's pretty hard to investigate that crime.”

“If you are missing something it is better we know it early, because the sooner we can get on the case the better. We can alert our network if cattle are missing or stolen,” Gray says. “When I get a call that says we're missing 10 heifers, the first question I ask is when did you last see them? If the last time you got a good count on your livestock was a while ago, it's very difficult to make a case due to the speed of commerce and the way cattle move today.”

Obviously, good fences and well maintained gates are the first line of defense. Lack of common sense, poor feeding habits and bad facility placement could make some easier victims compared to neighboring ranchers.

“The harder you make it for a thief, the more evidence they'll leave. Don't make it easy for them. If you notice that lock and chain have been cut, producers realize a theft may have been committed and go count their stock,” Gray says. “Vehicles are often stolen because they are parked by the road with the keys left in them. Don't feed in pens. It makes it extremely easy for a thief to pen your cattle. Build new pens off the roadway.”

“If a thief is determined enough it is awfully hard to stop him,” Bennett says. “Cattlemen can make it more difficult by having good fences, good gates and keeping their cattle pen out of sight.”

Most of the time property owners are looking at an outsider or someone who is down on their luck as a potential rustler. The surprising thing is with all the precautions most cattlemen take to deter outside criminals, one may be lurking closer than most are willing to accept.

“A lot of the reported thefts are committed by family members or a dishonest hired hand. Cattlemen, particularly absentee owners, don't check their cattle enough or trust an employee they really don't know that well to look after them,” Bennett says. “These cases often include a disgruntled former employee who knows the lay of the land and where everything is; a hired hand with too much freedom, who is not morally and ethically equipped to handle it or a family member looking for a fast buck.”

“A lot of thefts we work are internal. Many times we're surprised when a ranch manager who has been there 20 to 30 years will get caught selling the ranch's property,” Gray says. “It is really tough to guard against internal theft. Keep good counts and good records where you can take a close look and see if the information is falsified. Look for the unusual numbers in the death loss category or percentage of the calf crop.”

Absentee ownership is becoming more the norm as the older generation passes ownership to the next. Hunting and oil and gas leases offer opportunities for increased revenue, but could also be the first step in exposing property to potential thieves.

“Absentee ownership is really a problem. Most know if you only come out on the weekends or holidays. Cattle or property can be stolen on Sunday night and the thieves have a week head start,” Gray says. “Recreational and oil and gas leases can let in a thief. Anytime you make your place available or increase traffic it's an opportunity to see what you have.”

Cattlemen have gone to war with politicians over mandatory identification (ID). Permanent ID offers many pluses for cattlemen to apply basic management through better record keeping; to traceability issues when it comes to disease prevention. According to law enforcement officials, one form of permanent ID could do as much to deter cattle rustlers and help locate stolen property, as a little bit radical dad can do to scare off potential courters.

“We still have to brand these cattle. You can use all the technology available, but that hot iron brand is still the best form of ID. Tattoos are a good form of ID on the ranch, but we don't have time to check every tattoo when we're looking for stolen cattle. Ear tags can be removed or replaced and we have found them in the back of a thief's truck,” Gray says. “Your brand is visible from a distance and we can track it. I equate it to the license plate on a vehicle.”

“Register your brand and brand cattle. A freeze brand or a hot iron brand can be seen from a distance. This helps prevent theft and makes them easier to find stolen cattle. Brands are hard to change and branded cattle are hard to swap out for another group,” Bennett says. “With a tattoo you have to get up close and personal with the cattle, but it's still better than an ear tag.”

Instances of theft are not the only reason to brand cattle. Natural disasters or some community lease agreements make this a necessity.

“In a lot of cases, our brand inspectors are native to that area. They know the families who have been there for generations and they work together,” Bennett says. “When we have mixed herds, like after a hurricane, we referee the sort. Before we leave we make sure all parties are satisfied. Most of the community grazing operations along the coast has had a system for generations and they make it work because cattle are branded.”

“After hurricane Ike, we were able to take in mounted Rangers and gather livestock,” Gray says. “Because they were branded, and brands were registered, we were able to return all the livestock to their rightful owners.”

Due to daily management every herd could be susceptible to theft. Different timing of management procedures from operation to operation varies. Early prevention methods could help keep the herd safe.

“Get a hold of that baby calf and ear notch in a unique place, until you can brand and castrate,” Gray says. “In Texas, we can register an ear mark.”

“It depends on the resources each ranch has to work cattle on a regular basis,” Bennett says. “Ear notch or tag those baby calves as soon as you can. The sooner you can ID them with some sort of unique mark the better.”

According to folklore and history books, in the old days if rustlers were caught red handed often times a trial was not to be had. New ways to capture and punish criminals have evolved with society. Not that long ago, this harsh crime deserved a harsh penalty because most felt a man's livelihood and the ability to take care of his family were being threatened. Today, even though the hangman's noose may not be waiting, stealing livestock still comes with a stiff penalty.

“In Texas and Oklahoma it's automatically a third degree felony and punishable by two to ten years,” Gray says. “These penalties are often adjusted according to the dollar amount the thief got away with.”

“It's amazing a criminal can take a gun and steal $25 dollars at a quick stop and get 30 years in prison,” Bennett says. “If someone steals a $50,000 truck its grand theft auto and a slap on the wrist.”

With the price of cattle today, even the loss of one head to a two legged predator is a big loss for any outfit. Sure justice is served to see the thief behind bars, but what about the victim. Educating some law enforcement officials will help make the penalty match the crime.

“It's our job to enforce the law and get a conviction, but we can't forget about the victim,” Bennett says. “The victim can really get left holding the bag and we have to look out for him. I have tried to educate district attorneys and judges to what that crime really means to the victim and hopefully, get some restitution.”

There will always be challenges to protecting the herd from criminals. Whether criminals are obvious or blatant at how they go about stealing property or hide behind a trusting disguise, cattle rustlers are alive and well in the modern industry. Marshall Dillon and Festus or Captains Call and McCrae provided many backyard moments for a different generation, but today's law enforcement officials are armed with a new set of tools to catch a bandit. These same officials rely on a posse of cattlemen, sale barn owners and other facilitators of beef business to curb temptation or report wrong doing.

“Genetic improvements within a geographic area have all cattle looking the same, whether they are black, red or tiger stripe. The more uniform they are in appearance the easier it is for a thief to steal them if they aren't branded. Know you're cattle and their unique features,” Bennett says. “Be regimented. Check your stock and know who your employees are. A lot of thieves say cattlemen make it too easy to steal livestock.”

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