When a panicked rancher from Malta, Mont., reported recently that 80 of his beef cows had turned up missing, Montana brand inspector Rob Tierney did what his predecessors have done for well over a century.
Pulling on a Stetson, arming himself with a pistol and a star-shaped badge, he mounted a posse of cowboy investigators and went looking for cattle rustlers.
But in place of a strong horse to ride, Mr. Tierney drove a four-wheel-drive pickup. At his disposal, if necessary, were helicopters, a DNA fingerprinting lab, semiautomatic weapons, ballistics experts, and a computerized livestock database.
A rock-jawed enforcer of Montana livestock laws, Tierney may be the quintessential icon of the Old West blurring into the new. Friends call him John Wayne with James Bond reinforcements.
"You know the old saying about crime being alive and well. I can tell you that rustling is definitely still alive, but we're trying to keep it from becoming well," he says. "For those thieves who want to take us on, we're ready to ruin their day."
Although the outlaw trail in Malta turned cold for him and his posse, this case and others like it in surrounding states have awakened renewed concern over the apparent resurgence of rustling in the West.
Jody Henderson, the Texas director of brand inspection, says that this week during the annual convention of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association in Fort Worth, a prime topic of conversation is how to better safeguard the state's 15 million cattle.
"Every day we have a handful of new cases," Mr. Henderson says. "Rustling is one of those problems that doesn't get talked about publicly very much any more. People ... come up to me fairly regularly and reply: 'You mean, that stuff still goes on?' "
When Henderson explains that $4 million worth of livestock and related farm equipment are lost to rustlers annually, he says "their jaws drop."
Montana lawman Tierney says the very notion of corralling rustlers seems prosaic, especially at the end of the 20th century. But cattle - and more often horses - are coveted liquid commodities because they can be easily converted to cash. And lately, he notes, a number of convicted rustlers have admitted they stole livestock to support drug habits.
Here, and in every other big cattle state, rustling is taken as seriously as drug running and bank robbery. Maximum penalties for repeat offenders are 10 years in jail and a $50,000 fine.
In eastern Wyoming, where rustling is on a noticeable upswing, ranchers have banded together and formed a task force to combat the problem, says Kelly Hamilton, Wyoming's livestock law-enforcement supervisor.
Hamilton says the annual reported losses of livestock in the Cowboy State have averaged between $500,000 and $700,000 this decade. But officials say 40 percent of the rustling losses go unreported.
Officials say that keeping track of cattle on the West's vast public lands is difficult, especially since millions of cows are turned out on the range every spring and not rounded up until autumn.
"Smart rustlers siphon off maybe two or three head at a time," suggests Larry Hayhurst, the state brand inspector in Idaho. "The more daring thieves who aspire to turn a big, quick profit back up the semi-trailer truck to a pasture and start loading," he adds. "In a night's work, if they take 50 mature cows, they might have $40,000 worth of someone else's property."
More and more, Mr. Hayhurst says, officials are seeing a steady rise in white-collar cattle rustling involving bank loans and reports of alleged losses of cattle on paper. "The level of sophistication is unbelievable," he says.
That's a far cry from the cattle rustling of yesteryear. A century ago, the primary modus operandi of cattle thieves was to run their purloined animals all night to stay ahead of the posse. In fact, some of the most colorful outlaws in the West started this way, including Wyoming's legendary Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Today, however, the best odds of avoiding capture lie with fleeing to a "no brand" state where cattle transactions are loosely regulated. On the high plains, Tierney says, rustlers strike at herds in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, and then drive all night to the east side of the Missouri River in South Dakota and Minnesota where there are no brand requirements.
"If they do that, they're often home free, but our job is to keep them from getting that far," Tierney says. Perhaps the most significant development in the battle against rustling is the recent formation of the International Livestock Identification Association (ILIA).
Booted up with a computerized catalog of more than half-a-million brands, ILIA representatives can help pinpoint the ownership of vanished livestock just as a fingerprint can be digitally summoned to ID a criminal.
Still, despite the high-tech arsenal that investigators have at their disposal, he says that the best defense against rustling remains the mark of a hot-iron brand. Amid the modern age, brands hold currency as near-permanent stamps of ranchers' ownership.
"Brands have been around a long time and there's a good reason why they're still with us," Tierney says. "They're hard to alter, they're easy to recognize, and they can act like an informal certificate of ownership on the open range. We like brands because the rustlers hate them."