Ranchers battle remnant of the Old West

Texas cowmen have seen a surge in cattle rustling this fall, thanks to high beef prices and fewer cows.

Richard Neidig knew something was wrong the minute he drove up to his cattle pen near McDade, Texas. For one thing, there was a strange set of tire tracks inside the gate. For another, the seven heifers that used to be in the pen were gone.

So Mr. Neidig, a retired school custodian who now runs a small cattle operation, called the sheriff's department, who in turn called a private group that specializes in solving cattle-rustling cases.

Seventeen days later, Neidig got a call that his cattle had been found, and the thieves had been apprehended.

His heifers were happy to see him.

"They perked up and started bellowing," recalls Neidig, chuckling at the memory of picking up his red-faced Limousine-cross heifers two weeks ago. "They're spooky with strangers, but when I'm with them, they'll crowd around me and almost knock me down if I'm carrying a bag of feed."

At first, it might jar the 21st-century mind-set to think that cattle rustling still exists in central Texas, a region that produces far more laptops and semiconductor chips than steaks.

But the incentives behind cattle theft are as old as agriculture itself - cattle, in the eyes of thieves, are walking dollar bills - and once a trailer-load of cattle gets onto the Interstate Highway System, it's devilishly difficult to track them down. Small wonder, then, that modern lawmen find themselves resorting to a mixture of high-tech tools and Old West savvy to bring cattle rustlers to justice.

Here in the Austin area, an unusual spike in cattle thefts has kept investigators busy.

In all, nearly 200 head of cattle have been stolen across the state in the past year, including 110 head of cattle over a four-month period from a single rancher. Reasons for the thefts are obvious: After a two-year drought, the supply of beef is much lower than the demand, leading prices to rise from 70 cents up to $1.30 a pound for a live 300-pound heifer.

But thefts also seem to peak in the autumn, when ranchers bring their cattle into pens to fatten them up. This makes it easier for the rancher to inspect his cattle; it also makes it easier for the thief.

Cracking down on cattle rustlers

To combat this theft, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association employs 33 field inspectors to investigate cases of theft and 98 auction inspectors to take down the name and license plate of every owner who sells cattle and a description of every cow that is sold. Last year, the association recovered some $7 million in stolen property, up from a $5 million average.

Cattle rustling hasn't gotten any worse over the years, says Larry Gray, chief of law-enforcement operations for the association, a private group that is empowered by state law to investigate cases of cattle theft in Texas and Oklahoma. But with the advent of pickup-drawn trailers and paved highways, he says, cattle thieves can steal more cattle and take them farther from home.

"In the olden days, thieves could break onto someone's land, round up five or six head of cattle, and drive them off through the brush," says Mr. Gray, from his Fort Worth headquarters. "Now they steal trailer loads" of 10 to 12 cattle at a time.

Like any other cop, field inspector Keith Korenek takes a carload of tools with him when he investigates a case of cattle rustling: a .357 pistol, a laptop, a cellphone and pager, and a tape recorder. He has a healthy respect for the new technologies being tested by ranchers, such as microchip implants and laser retina-scans.

But the greatest tool for solving cattle theft, he says, dates back 400 years or more. It's called a brand.

"A hundred years ago, everybody branded their cattle," says Mr. Korenek, who works out of his home near Austin. "Now, if I don't have an ear mark or a brand, I don't have probable cause. I might see a cow in the field that fits the description, but without a brand, she's just another red cow with horns."

In a typical case, Korenek will call up each of the auction houses in his nine-county district to tell inspectors to keep an eye out for cattle of a certain description.

Occasionally, cases are solved by an anonymous tip. Sometimes they are solved by the brazenness of the thieves themselves, who often use their own names and addresses when selling cattle at auctions.

It was Korenek who broke up a ring of disgruntled employees who had stolen some 57 head of cattle from their employer over a five-year period.

Just last month, he busted two illegal immigrants who had stolen 110 head of cattle from their boss, in one case borrowing his trailer to speed up the process.

The case of the missing heifers

And it was Korenek who returned Richard Neidig's heifers to their proper owner, after a particularly fortunate twist in a separate case.

Two thieves were working together, and one of them was caught selling stolen cattle at an auction barn. After several interviews, Korenek asked the thief if he had any other cattle on his property. The partner described Neidig's seven heifers, down to their ear-markings. The final proof came when Neidig drove up.

"He recognized them, and they recognized him," says Korenek of the heifers. "They bawled at him."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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