Meth, Poverty Drive Up Cattle Rustling In Texas

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Cattle rustling is on the rise in Texas and Oklahoma. So far this year, authorities have seen a 40 percent increase in thefts. But one of the reasons why may be a bit surprising: Drug users are stealing them.

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From feeding cattle to stealing cattle. Cattle-rustling might seem like something out of the past, but it's still an issue in some parts of the country. In Texas, ranchers are seeing an increase in stolen cows, even as the overall number of cattle shrinks.

From member station KUT in Austin, Mose Buchele brings us the story.

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MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: This is how Paulie Sanchez takes a headcount of cows at his ranch in Giddings, Texas. Not using a horse or lasso, just a pickup truck and a feed bag.

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BUCHELE: He drives up on a herd, as cows shelter from the sun under some pine trees.

PAULIE SANCHEZ: And before they all see me, I'm going to get out and put a sack of feed in between my legs here, and draw them out and they'll - and then, you know, they'll come.

BUCHELE: In a flash, he's grabbed the feed bag from the bed of the truck and is back behind the wheel, throwing food out the window.

SANCHEZ: Woo-woo! That's all it takes.

BUCHELE: The animals seemed so sleepy just seconds before. Now, they spring to life. They charge the truck; one even head-butts it.

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SANCHEZ: Whoa!

BUCHELE: But once the food's on the ground, they settle down. Sanchez circles the herd, taking mental note.

SANCHEZ: They're all here, 33 of them. It's 33 cows and 33 calves.

BUCHELE: It's a routine he runs through, to make sure his cows aren't lost or stolen. Ranchers saw a dramatic jump in cattle theft last year. In Texas and Oklahoma, over 10,000 cows and horses - mostly cows - were reported missing. That's almost a 40 percent increase from the year before.

Doug Hutchison is a special ranger who works cattle cases in Texas. He says rustlers have been busy - though he uses a different name.

DOUG HUTCHISON: We're kind of slow to use the term cattle rustler because that kind of has a romantic sound to it. And it's - a thief is just a thief, you know? I mean, it's just a sad situation.

BUCHELE: Hutchison blames the rustling rise on two crises plaguing parts of rural America: drought and methamphetamine use. First, drought - it means there's not enough grass for cattle to forage, and the price of hay skyrockets. Faced with the new expense, ranchers cut their herds. Since 2011, ranchers have cut cattle herds year after year in Texas. And that's where the drugs come in. The cows that remain are valuable; some fetch thousands of dollars, an appealing target for people looking to feed addiction.

HUTCHISON: Not always, but I would say the majority of these cases are driven by the meth community. And they know it's some quick cash.

BUCHELE: While a stolen cow is tough to transport and trade, it's more difficult to prosecute the thief. Last year, authorities only filed 46 cases against rustlers. Sometimes, the best chance for law enforcement to recover the cattle is at a place like this.

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BUCHELE: The Giddings Livestock Commission holds its auction every Monday. The bidding happens up front. The real action is in the holding pens.

NINA NYGARD: We're at the back of the cattle auction, looking at the cows.

BUCHELE: Nina Nygard is a brand inspector. She stands on a long catwalk over the cattle, making notes on every animal that passes through.

NYGARD: And I'm looking for earmarks, horns, brands - anything that makes them look, you know, distinctive.

BUCHELE: If a cow goes missing, Nygard will be on the lookout for it. If she sees something unusual about a cow, she'll notify law enforcement.

NYGARD: I don't know - I guess I've been doing it so long, I see brands on everything.

(LAUGHTER)

BUCHELE: Nygard agrees that a lot of cattle are stolen for drugs, but she also blames one final factor: continuing economic hardship in rural parts of the state. In either case, it means the thefts could continue to rise, along with the price of a cow.

For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin, Texas.

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