LIANE HANSEN, host:
Cattle can bring a hefty paycheck for ranchers these days. But thieves are also trying to capitalize on record-breaking prices. Like the storyline of an old Western, rustlers are on the prowl in Texas, Oklahoma and other cattle-raising states. And ranchers are putting their local Sheriffs Department on speed dial.
Gail Banzet of member station KOSU reports.
GAIL BANZET: Grant Green raises a few hundred head of cattle in Wellston, Oklahoma. 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.
Mr. GRANT GREEN (Cattleman): Anything to do with farming and cattle, its a lot of labor and hours. You know, as many cattle as I have had stolen, that was a big percentage of my profit.
BANZET: A few months later, thieves broke in a second time using a cutting torch on Greens gates. This time, the rancher wasn't just mad, he felt violated.
Mr. GREEN: You know, anytime 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.
BANZET: Then last October, thieves hit again stealing 10 more cattle, but those were recovered by investigators at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.
(Soundbite of horns honking)
BANZET: Today, those cows are back home safe on Green's land answering his call for dinner.
Mr. GREEN: Come on, girls.
BANZET: Ranchers all over the country are trying to protect their animals from a growing number of cattle rustlers. When the economy took a downward turn and prices began to rise, thieves focused on the Midwest and other cattle-dense areas of the country like Montana.
Todd Firkins with Bayer Animal Health is the founder of CattleWatch.com, 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.
Mr. TODD FIRKINS (Marketing Manager, Bayer Animal Health): 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 to keep a special eye on their place. Take the time and lock gates, watch putting pens and load-outs and loading chutes close to a highway.
BANZET: 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.
Mr. GREEN: They go out and steal a TV or something, you know, 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.
(Soundbite of cattle mooing)
(Soundbite of auctioneer conducting auction)
BANZET: Checks for that full market value are written at auction barns around the country like the OKC West Livestock Auction in El Reno, Oklahoma. Every week, buyers and sellers sit here in the stands to watch cattle sell. The auction's owner, Bill Barnhart, says most of the time sellers are honest ranchers. But when they're not, he says video surveillance helps.
Mr. BILL BARNHART (Owner, OKC West Livestock Auction): 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.
BANZET: 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. And 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.
For NPR News, I'm Gail Banzet in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
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HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.