US rustlers lassoing more cattle as prices rise

Rancher Howard Wilson keeps some of his cattle in a pasture near his home, just outside this central Florida town. Before dawn one morning last month, someone shot one of his $500 heifers near a fence along the road, just across from a church.

"They cut off a hind quarter," Mr. Wilson says, "I'll bet they weren't there five minutes; they knew just what they were doing."

Cattle thefts -- large and small -- are on the rise again across the United States, according to the National Cattlemen's Association (NCA) and industry officials in several states.

The problem is acute across the United States. Several weeks ago south of Fort Worth, Texas, for instance, thieves carted away 22 head from a feed lot where some 800 cattle were being held.

Although always a problem, cattle thefts leveled off from 1974 to early 1979 when prices generally were down, says Burt Eller of the NCA. But with the increase in cattle prices in the spring of 1979, and with the pinch of inflation , thefts started climbing again, he says.

Mr. Eller estimates cattle losses due to theft "in the millions of dollars" nationally each year. In Texas alone, the annual loss is in excess of $1 million, says Cullen Robinson, an official of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.

To combat the problem, experts are recommending: (1) more and tougher branding laws, (2) giving investigators power to arrest suspected thieves, (3) stiffer sentences for thieves instead of the frequent use of restitution and probation.

Les Graham, president of the International Brand Conference, a cattle-protection organization, is one who particularly recommends that more states pass -- and enforce -- tough branding laws in conjunction with other statutes requiring proof of ownership at the time of sale or transportation of cattle between counties or states. New Mexico and Montana have effective laws of this kind, he says.

In fact, most Western states have some kind of cattle-branding laws, Mr. Graham adds, but a number of Midwestern and Southeastern states do not. Texas has a branding law, but it is not often enforced, Mr. Robinson says. Florida does not require branding. Many cattle raisers consider branding a "hassle," one Florida investigator says.

Training of state cattle-theft investigators has been increasing along with interstate cooperation among such officials, Mr. Eller says. And more states are showing an interest in stronger branding laws.

In large cattle thefts, one of the most frequent methods used involves backing up a large truck to a feed lot and quickly loading 10 to 15 head. In smaller thefts, gate locks are often snipped with bolt cutters. Then thieves drive into the pasture in a pickup truck, temporarily blind a cow or calf with the headlights, shoot the animal, then load it onto the truck.

In both cases, the target often is not a remote ranch where a stranger might be suspected if seen on a road, but one nearer a town where there is more traffic. One confessed thief interviewed by Florida authorities said he always preferred stealing unbranded cattle near a main highway.

The smaller incidents may be the most rapidly rising forms of cattle theft, Mr. Eller says. Sometimes, as in the case of Mr. Wilson's heifer, thieves butcher the animal in the field and haul the meat home for their own use.

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