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Cow Thieves Rustle Up Status As Modern-Day Outlaws

Rancher Grant Green raises a few hundred head of cattle in Wellston, Okla. Thieves have stolen his cows several times.
Gail Banzet for NPR
Rancher Grant Green raises a few hundred head of cattle in Wellston, Okla. Thieves have stolen his cows several times.

Like the storyline of an old Western, cattle rustlers are once again on the prowl.

Cattle can bring a hefty paycheck for ranchers these days, and thieves are also trying to capitalize on record-breaking prices.

Thieves have stolen cows from Grant Green, who raises a few hundred head of cattle in Wellston, Okla.,, more than once. The first time he discovered three of his cows missing, he called the sheriff. The missing cows were worth at least $3,000, money that Green uses to pay his bills.

A few months later, thieves broke in a second time using a cutting torch on Green's gates. This time, the rancher wasn't just mad — he felt violated.

"Any time somebody goes to the limits they did to get in your property, you know they schemed the whole deal and that's enough right there to go plumb through your skin," Green says.

Then last October, thieves hit again, stealing 10 more cattle, but those were recovered by investigators at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. Today those cows are back home safe on Green's land.

'It's Very Profitable'

Ranchers all over the country are trying to protect their animals from a growing number of cattle rustlers.

Todd Firkins with Bayer Animal Health is the founder of Cattlewatch.com, a program designed to help stop cattle theft, and he says ranchers need to be more cautious. Good cows now sell for more than $1,000 each, and that's a tempting price for thieves.

"We just want folks to be aware that it is not a thing of the past and that even though they may not have been a victim in recent times, just keep a special eye on their place," Firkins says. "Take the time and lock gates, watch putting pens and load outs and loading shoots close to a highway."

There's no nationwide database for tracking just how many cattle go missing, but according to the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association, theft reports in just Texas and Oklahoma alone jumped threefold to more than 7,000 in 2009.

Austin Green is one of the association's rangers who works cattle theft cases. Complete with cowboy hat, vest and badge, the commissioned police officer is a modern-day western lawman, and he says stealing cattle is different from other types of theft because there's often more money at stake.

"They go out and steal a TV or something, they're going to get pennies on the dollar. But if you go out and steal cattle, they're getting full market value for them. It's very profitable," Austin Green says.

Branding As A Deterrent?

Checks for that full market value are written at auction barns around the country like the OKC West Livestock Auction in El Reno, Okla. Every week buyers and sellers sit here in the stands to watch cattle sell. Bill Barnhart, the auction's owner, says most of the time sellers are honest ranchers. But when they're not, he says video surveillance helps.

"Things we've come up with in the past where we have sold stolen cattle, we usually have some pretty good information on those people and we've caught several of them," Barnhart says.

Cattle theft investigators encourage ranchers all over the country to not only keep a close eye on their animals, but to brand them when possible. Branding is only required in New Mexico though it's common practice among ranchers.

While branding appears to have limited success as a deterrent to cattle thieves, it does sometimes help ranchers recover their stolen stock. If convicted, thieves can face serious prison time, but that doesn't appear to be stopping them from stirring up dust and chasing cows just like rustlers did in the Old West.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gail Banzet