GATESVILLE — Cattle rustling may sound like a crime of a bygone era.
But livestock theft is not just the stuff of Texas history books or Western movies. In fact, some officials say, it is a growing problem.
“With the economy like it is, it’s a possibility that cattle rustling could become a problem,” said Tim Gallaway, who has independently raised cattle in Coryell County since 1974.
Gallaway said he has not yet been a victim of cattle theft, but “with cattle prices as high as they are, it’s really a wonder we ain’t had more of that.”
According to a recent National Public Radio report, ranchers saw a sharp jump in cattle rustling last year in Texas and Oklahoma. More than 10,000 cows and horses were reported missing or stolen — an increase of nearly 40 percent from the year before.
Officials said cattle rustling is not a serious threat in Central Texas, but it’s not unheard of either.
Special Ranger Marvin Wills of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association recently cited a case from 2012 in which a man was found guilty of rustling cattle in Burnet and selling them in Lampasas County. On Friday, he was sentenced to 10 years of probation and ordered to pay nearly $60,000 in restitution.
“We’re always going to have cows that are lost or missing, but we generally consider those strays, and in most of those cases crimes can’t be proven,” Wills said. “We haven’t seen an increase in stray cattle. So far, we don’t really have an issue with rustling in Bell and Coryell counties.”
As an officer of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Wills oversees reports, investigations and recoveries of stolen livestock and agricultural property in Bell, Bosque, Coryell, Falls, Hamilton, Hill, Lampasas and McLennan counties.
Association officers provide their services on a volunteer basis and work in close cooperation with state, federal and local law enforcement agencies on cases throughout Texas and Oklahoma.
Coryell County Sheriff Johnny Burks and his deputies generally act as first responders to suspected criminal activity or problems related to livestock. Burks echoed Wills’ account of cattle strays and theft in the area.
“We haven’t really seen an increase in that,” he said.
Burks said the recent passage of Coryell County’s closed-range ordinance has not significantly affected enforcement of cattle concerns.
“We’ve generally enforced cattle issues using the closed-range system even before the ordinance was passed,” he said.
The ordinance primarily holds property owners responsible and accountable for their own livestock and fencing to keep them contained.
Securing the herd
Many area ranchers are not taking the security of their herds for granted and are taking steps to guard against theft.
Ranchers like Gallaway never know when an animal may turn up missing.
“I also raise cattle on the reservation (Fort Hood), and that’s a whole different ballgame. Cattle have disappeared there forever,” he said.
Just as they have done for generations, ranchers today use tried-and-tested measures to keep and retrieve their cattle.
“The big thing is branding,” Gallaway said, adding ear-marking is essential.
“There’s a brand inspector at every sale barn, and if a cow turns up missing, they can look up the brand and find out if they’re in possession of a stolen cow,” he said.
“The problem in this area is stealing things for drugs, but cattle are hard to handle, and most of those folks don’t have a clue. It’s a lot easier to get all the copper tubing out of a house to sell than it is to trailer a load of cattle.”
Microchipping cattle is another way to safeguard individual animals and curtail theft.
Bobby Williams, another lifelong Coryell County rancher, said he has never been a victim of rustling, but remembered neighbors who were in the past.
He said that one reason Central Texas is not a popular target for rustlers is that there are fewer working cattle ranches in the area now than in the past.
“There are lots of places with high fences and exotic animals now. Out west, it’s a worse problem, because they can get in and get out,” Williams said.
He said “convenience is the first factor” when it comes to motivations of thieves.
“Everybody ought to brand every cow they’ve got,” Williams said.