Monday, May 14, 2012

Cattle Rustlers

Today, right now, Cattle Rustling costs American Cattle Producers and Ranchers Millions of Dollars each year! 

Back in the late 1970's, during the Jimmy Carter years when the Real Last Great Depression hit us, a Sheriff's Deputy told me that cattle rustling was a sort of barometer that his Department used to judge how bad the economy was getting - and subsequently how bad crime was getting.

A bad economy to law enforcement means a lot more activity across the board. After thinking about it, it made sense that that was a barometer.

If cattle rustling was up, the economy was in the tank. When the economy got better, rustling would go down - or all but disappear.

That was it, it was just that simple.

Sure, it wasn't real scientific by any stretch of the imagination - but it followed common sense.

And yes, across the nation these days - cattle theft is running rampant. And yes, unlike what the Obama administration is trying to feed the public - we can all see that our economy is in trouble.


Back in 2011, Oklahoma rancher Ryan Payne wasn't worried about anyone messing with his cows and calves.

By his estimation, his pasture is so far off the beaten path "you need a helicopter to see it."

That changed when 37 year old Payne checked on his livestock and found a ghoulish scene.

He found piles of entrails from two Black Angus calves he says thieves gutted "like they were deer."

Rustlers made off with the meat and another 400-pound calf in a heist that he estimated cost him at least $1,800.

"Gosh, times are tough, and maybe people are truly starving and just need the meat," he said. "But it's shocking. I can't believe people can stoop that low."

A combination of a bad economy and high beef prices have made cattle rustling very attractive as a quick score for the criminal minded.

If you don't think that it's a big problem, please understand that the total market loss of livestock, saddle and trailer thefts in 2011 was almost $4.3 million - according to data from the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

Law Enforcement understands how they operate.

Today's thieves are sophisticated compared to the horseback bandits of the Old West.

Cattle Rustling In The Old West

Back then, the Old West was a no nonsense place and rustling was considered a serious offense which frequently resulted in a lynching by vigilantes.

Of course cattle thefts by Indians were a common hazard for early settlers in the Old West.

Though the Indians more often stole horses, when their food supply was short, they drove off and butchered a few cows, took a few dairy cows, and maybe even oxen.

Sometimes Indians stole beyond their needs to avenge wrongs or to drive White settlers out and away from their hunting grounds.

Indians were also known to occasionally start stampedes and kill cattle they could not drive off.

During the Civil War and into the Reconstruction Era, Mexican rustlers were a lot of trouble along the border.

In claims made against the Mexican government, it was asserted that from 1859 through 1872 Mexican bandits stole 145,298 cattle from various South Texas ranches.

Mexican rustlers were a major issue during the American Civil War. Later American rustlers stole Mexican cattle from across the border.

In those days, failure to brand new calves meant they could be lost quick.

The depredations of Indian and Mexican rustlers, however, fell far short of those perpetrated by White rustlers.

In fact, ranchers in Mexico often were victimized by Texas thieves who swam large herds of "wet stock" across the Rio Grand by night and trailed them to Kansas markets.

Most rustlers of the open-range era were themselves once Cowboys who had drifted into dubious practices.

Most will tell you that it was the transition from open range to fenced in grazing land that gradually reduced the practice of rustling. That in itself is false.

Fact is that they knew the cattle country and were adept at roping, branding, and trailing. One needed only to buy a few cows, register a brand, and begin branding strays.

Many cowboys had herds that increased so fast that some Ranchers refused to hire any hand who had stock of his own.

Other rustlers stampeded herds on the northward trails and drove off as many cattle as they could, using six-shooters and rifles to defend themselves if pursued by law or vigilantes.

Many rustlers worked on herds that grazed on the western ranges.

These were cattle that was easily hidden in box canyons where high brush kept them out of sight until a "running iron" can be made hot.

The altering of brands was a frequent practice among rustlers.

Instead of the stamp iron used by most cattlemen, the rustler used a "running iron"  a straight rod with a curve at the heated end.

When this was outlawed, he sometimes used a piece of heavy wire that he could bend into any shape and carry in his pocket.

Stealing of another man's cattle was serious, and rustlers often change brands in an attempt to transfer ownership of herds. They use a "running iron" which was a round-surfaced piece of metal which can be heated and used to trace a freehand change in the original brand.

In the early days, a saddle cinch ring was often used as a running iron. It was easy to carry, and could be handled by placing a green tree branch through the center.

Old-time justice for apprehended rustlers was swift and sure.

The penalty for getting caught running a brand was usually a rope and a "necktie party" held beneath the nearest tree.

There's an interesting story about one rustling case that was solved by Roy Bean of Langtry, Texas.

Judge Bean, although he had no official authority for his actions, set himself up as "The Law West of the Pecos."

When a nearby rancher from the Bar S spread complained of losing calves, Judge Bean went to work on the case.

He rode out on the range and returned about a week later with a stranger and some 20 head of steers in tow. The cattle all bore the 48 brand which the stranger claimed was his registered mark.

Court was convened on the porch of Bean's store and saloon.

As Exhibit A in the trial, Bean shot one of the freshly branded 48 steers and peeled back the hide.

On the animal's flesh, the blackish Bar S showed quite plainly. Over the Bar S were fresh burns which turned the original brand into a 48.


This conclusive evidence sealed the doom of the unlucky stranger, and he was soon swinging from a nearby cottonwood tree.

More common was the theft of large unbranded calves.

When a Rancher neglected to brand some of his calves before they were weaned, it was easy for a rustler to cut a pasture fence, drive the calves to his corral, and stamp his own brand upon them.

Often he was not content with this but would return to take also the smaller calves, not yet weaned.

This was more ticklish procedure, since Longhorn cows and calves had a strong instinct for returning to each other, even when separated by miles.

Such reunions had to be prevented, because as everyone knows if a Rancher did actually find a calf with a Rustler's brand nursing from one of his cows - there would likely be bad trouble.

Before branding unweaned calves, often the rustler kept them penned until they quit bawling and learned to eat grass.

Other measures used to keep them from getting back to their mothers and to hasten weaning was the horrible practice of cutting the muscles supporting the calf's eyelids and thus make it temporarily blind.


Rustlers used to also apply a hot iron between the toes to make the calf's feet too sore for walking, or, in uncommon cases, they would split the calf's tongue to prevent suckling.

The rustler might also kill the mother to make the calf a genuine orphan.

So as you can see, they didn't only steal cattle - they used horrible methods to do what they did.

Maybe now you can understand why rustlers were hanged.

With county seats far apart, grand juries disinclined to indict, and trial juries reluctant to convict, early cattlemen often had to take law enforcement into their own hands in dealing with rustlers. 

Back then,  ranchers enforced frontier justice with a rope.

In April of 1892, the Johnson County War, also known as the War on Powder River, was a range war which took place in Johnson County, Natrona County and Converse County in the U.S. state of Wyoming.

It was a conflict over an alleged rustling incident, although some think that rustling was used as an excuse to kill a few who the big cattle barons called "trouble makers."

Fact is that it was a battle between small settling ranchers and larger established ranchers in the Powder River Country that culminated in a lengthy shootout between local ranchers, a band of hired killers, and a sheriff's posse, eventually requiring the intervention of the U.S. Cavalry on the orders of U.S. President Benjamin Harrison.

Part of the problem was the age old practice of free grazing, and one's grazing rights.

Though grazing rights have never been codified in United States law, the concept of such rights descends from the English concept of the commons, a piece of land over which people - often neighboring landowners - could exercise one of a number of traditional rights, including livestock grazing.

Prior to the 19th century, the traditional practice of grazing open range land in the United States was rarely disputed due to the sheer amount of unsettled open land.

However, as the population of the West increased in the mid to late 19th century, range wars erupted over a rancher's perceived rights to graze cattle as the open range lands started to deteriorate with overuse.

Free grazing made it possible for rustlers to acquire "stray" cattle easier.

Following the transition from the open range to fenced ranches, rustling gradually was lessened.

But it wasn't only the wire that helped the situation, it also took a lot of effort by local law enforcement, the Texas Rangers, and inspectors of Cattlemen's Associations - who checked brands as cattle were sold at livestock markets.

Rustling was not entirely stamped out, however, and in the 1930s it broke out in a new form.

Thieves equipped with fast trucks stole cattle at night, butchered them in nearby thickets, and sold the meat the next day in markets perhaps several hundred miles away.

The extent of this rustling and the fact that the thieves often crossed state lines led Congress in 1941 to pass the McCarran Act, which provided a maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine and five years in prison for transporting stolen cattle or meat from such cattle across state lines.

This measure, however, did not prevent the sale of stolen meat in black markets during World War II.

In the late 1970s, a new type of thief emerged known as the "Suburban rustler." This individual usually attacked unattended ranchettes stole four or five head, and took the cattle immediately to auction.

Techniques of theft in the later twentieth century included anesthetizing cattle with hypodermic darts, using trained bulldogs to bring the animals down, and herding the booty with helicopters.

As the price of beef escalated, so did the ingenuity of the rustlers.

Since the early twentieth century, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association has employed field inspectors to police cattle rustling.

These agents, deputized by the Texas Department of Public Safety as Special Texas Rangers, helped to recover 4,000 cattle in 1993.

By the 20th century so called "Suburban Rustling" became more common.

It was the practice of rustlers actually anesthetizing cattle and taking them directly to auction.

It often took place at night, and it was a real problem for law enforcement because on very large ranches it can take several days for loss of cattle to be noticed and reported.

Convictions are still rare or nonexistent.

Today, rustlers pull up in livestock trailers in the middle of the night and know how to coax the animals inside.

"It almost has to be someone who knows about the business, including just knowing where to take the cattle," said Carmen Fenton, a spokeswoman for the 15,000-member Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, formed in the 1870s specifically to combat cattle rustlers.

"It's crazy to think we're still in business."

There's no clearinghouse that tracks thefts nationally, but statistics among certain states are staggering.

In Texas, the nation's biggest cattle producer, and to a lesser extent Oklahoma, some 4,500 cattle have been reported missing or stolen in 2011, according to Fenton's group.

The association's special rangers managed to recover or account for $4.8 million in stolen ranch property each of the previous two years, most of it steers, bulls, cows and calves.

Such thefts also are happening in places once spared.

In southwestern Missouri's Jasper County, not far from a regional stockyard, about 100 of the nearly 180 head of cattle stolen this year were snatched during a recent six-week stretch, sheriff's Lt. Ron Thomas said.

"Occasionally one or two have gotten stolen (over the years), but not this many in such a short time.

They've gotten us big time," he said, figuring the stolen livestock have been whisked off to another state.

"These guys are not your typical fly-by-night, let's-steal-a-cow kinda people. They know exactly what they're doing. They're pretty slick, and they're bold."

"Investigators have found clues to be elusive, partly because thieves often artfully conceal their crimes by replacing pasture fences they've cut to get to the animals," said Thomas.

Ranchers unaccustomed to counting their cattle each day may not realize any are missing for a week or more, and by then, any tire tracks or other evidence - perhaps even DNA or fingerprints from a soda or beer can discarded by the bandit -  may be gone.

The other problem is that while brands are widely used in the West, three states hard hit by livestock thefts -Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas - don't require them.

That's hampered investigators' efforts to match recovered cattle to owners or to relay to stockyards markings to watch for when strangers haul in livestock to be sold.

Without brands, "ranchers could tell me their missing cow is brown and white, but goodness gracious, go down the road and you'll see thousands," said Thomas.

While a voluntary national livestock identification system exists, few ranchers and farmers participate in it.

"Unfortunately, cattle don't have a serial number that goes with them or some type of permanent ID" short of branding, said Jim Fraley, an Illinois Farm Bureau livestock specialist.

"Thieves look at it as an opportunity and can market the cattle under their name. It's a fairly easy thing to do."

Vigilance by owners has paid off in some cases.

A Colorado rancher who was hunting prairie dogs spotted one of his branded, missing cows on another man's property.

Deputies swooped in and found 36 cows and 31 calves worth $68,000 and belonging to nine different people.

An Alabama rancher reported a couple of his cattle missing, and then two more were stolen the next night, Chilton County Sheriff Kevin Davis said.

Sheriff's investigators installed cameras on the property but got nothing before pulling them days later.

Not long after, the farmer called because he spotted two men with a pickup truck and what turned out to be a stolen trailer on his land.

Deputies arrested the men and found five of the six missing cows — half of them pregnant — at various locations. The sixth animal already had been slaughtered.

Davis credited luck and the rancher's "heightened alert" for snaring the two suspects.

"The boldness is the thing — for them to come back three different times to the same pasture," he said.

"Obviously, they didn't feel very threatened about being caught. But I've never given criminals credit for having high intelligence."

And no, they're not finicky.

An Ohio woman has been charged with taking $110,000 worth of frozen bull semen from a liquid-nitrogen tank at a Moorefield Township genetics company where she once worked.

Fact is that artificial insemination in cattle is big business, and bull semen can be extremely valuable to breeders in even small amounts.

And if you think that's something out of the ordinary, think about this.

Today it is not unusual to find that livestock theft often involves criminals who exchange or sell the cattle, horses, or other livestock for drugs.

And yes, one alarming trend is that thieves who use to work unarmed are more likely to be carrying guns - this is especially true when the cattle thefts involve drugs.

Back in Oklahoma, Payne replaced old wire gates on his ranch near Chelsea, with "big, old heavy-duty steel ones," hoping to safeguard his other cows.

"That's about all I can do," he said. "Like everyone says, it never happens to me. I guess that's wrong."

All in all, aside from increased penalties, law enforcement is doing what it can as it also uses high-tech methods of apprehending criminals.

Of course, it is not unusual for this is to lead to arrests never possible before.

But still, even though law enforcement and state regulatory agencies are doing what they can do, rustling is alive and well in the 21st century.

And if times get harder and more folks are out of work, expect rustling to increase across the country.


Story by Tom Correa

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