When Larry Gray's rangers send out an all-points bulletin, they generally don't know much about the height and weight of the suspects they're after. But they can describe what was stolen, detailing cattle brands on heifers and estimated weights of steers.
"Special Ranger Marvin Wills and local authorities are seeking information leading to the arrest or indictment of a suspect or suspects involved in the theft of 107 head of steers from a ranch near Waco, Texas," reads a recent release. "According to Wills, the steers weigh between 600 to 700 pounds, and each have an “FS” brand on the left hip."
Cattle theft, a decades-old problem, continues costing Texas ranchers millions of dollars annually. Although the number of reported rustling cases has dropped in recent years, the value of stolen livestock has risen along with cattle prices driven higher by years of drought.
"It’s been a continuing problem since 1877 when our association was formed,” said Gray, executive director of law enforcement and theft prevention for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
With 30 officers commissioned by the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation or both, the association tracks livestock and property theft in Texas and Oklahoma. Most of the work is in Texas, the nation's largest cattle producer.
The number of animals stolen — and how much a thief can get for them — has fluctuated in recent years, Gray said, largely because of the drought’s effects on the market and the availability of cattle.
In 2011, ranchers began selling off their livestock, fearing a protracted drought would make feed and water scarce. Fewer animals were stolen from Texas ranches in subsequent years, he said, because there were fewer to take.
In 2011, the association investigated 898 reported cases of theft, including 804 in Texas that included 13,000 livestock stolen or missing. The association helped recover livestock worth about $4.07 million.
In 2012, the association investigated 980 reported cases of theft. About 790 of those were in Texas and included 6,320 livestock stolen or missing. The property recovered was valued at $3.3 million in Texas.
In 2013, the number of cases dipped to 770 including 700 in Texas, where the number of livestock reported missing or stolen was 4,200. The property recovered that year was worth $2.2 million.
Much of Texas is out of the drought stage, and ranchers are still grappling with theft due to the record prices caused by the decline in cattle production. In 2014 the association investigated 790 cases, including 726 in Texas. But the 5,325 animals reported stolen or missing in Texas were valued at $4.89 million, an increase of more than $800,000 from 2011.
“It has cycles just like any other crime where it goes up and down,” Gray said. “But cattle are at record levels as far as the prices go. That makes it very attractive to a thief to steal a load of cattle.”
In 2009, the Texas Legislature made theft of less than 10 head of cattle or other livestock a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in state prison.
In 2014, jail time handed out for thieves totaled 240 years, up from 2013’s 193.
There is one silver lining, Gray said. The state's ranchers hardly ever get word that cattle thieves crossed the Rio Grande with the stolen goods.
"It has happened, but the border is so secure now with so many monitors and Border Patrol and sensors at all type of devices, it doesn’t happen much," he said.
Disclosure: The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.