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The Modern Cost of Cattle Rustling

Why the Old West crime is still a multimillion-dollar problem

A woman herds cattle on horseback at Dumbell Ranch in Wyoming (James L. Amos/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

A crime that seems more at home in a history book or a John Wayne movie—cattle rustling—still plagues the modern West. In Texas, ranchers lose millions of dollars every year to cattle thieves, Julián Aguilar and Miles Hutson report for the Texas Tribune.

The problem has been exacerbated by the threat of drought, which makes ranching an expensive, risky business. The price each animal can fetch on the open market, as well as the price of beef, has steadily climbed in recent years. "It has cycles just like any other crime where it goes up and down," Larry Gray, executive director of law enforcement and theft prevention for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, tells Aguilar and Hutson. "But cattle are at record levels as far as the prices go. That makes it very attractive to a thief to steal a load of cattle."

As Eric Benson reports for FiveThirtyEight, it's difficult to directly correlate the rising cost of beef with cattle thefts—but whatever the broad consequences of the crime, payouts for individual rustlers are high. A calf is worth nearly $1,000, according to the Cattle Raisers Association, while an uncastrated bull can sell for more than $2,800. That's a lot of money to tempt potential thieves.

NPR's Jacob McCleland suggests a different factor that may encourage cattle rustling: substance abuse. More than two-thirds of thefts are fueled by drug and alcohol addiction, John Cummings, a special ranger for the association, tells McCleland: "We've had cases where people have actually stolen cattle, taken them to a local person, put them on their land, and in exchange got drugs for those cattle," he adds.

While modern cattle rustlers have pulled off enormous heists—1,121 calves worth $1.4 million were stolen in the northeast Texas Panhandle last spring—thefts tend to involve only a few animals. However, any loss can be a devastating one for small ranchers like Susan Edmondson, who lost 12 cows and 16 calves from her Oklahoma ranch last winter. "It just puts me in a bind," she tells McCleland. "People don't think anything about it when they're like, 'Oh, somebody just stole a cow or this or that.' But when it's that big of a hit, I mean, I don't know if I can make my payment this year. It's devastating."

In some states, ranchers are required to brand or mark their cattle, which helps to identify stolen animals. Unfortunately, Texas doesn't have a similar rule. "If it ain't marked, you can get away with it," John Green, a cowboy serving 10 years in prison for cattle theft, tells the AP's Michael Graczyk. "That's the trick."

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