By Heide Brandes
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - One of the oldest Wild West crimes, cattle rustling, has been making a comeback in Oklahoma in recent years, with major culprits being methamphetamine addicts selling stolen livestock to pay for their drug habits, officials said.
This week, Oklahoma identified five people suspected of being in a cattle rustling ring, arresting two suspects. Cattle thefts cost ranchers about $4.5 million last year, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture said.
"Cattle rustling has been around since Moby Dick was a minnow, but the price of cattle has doubled and tripled in the past few years, and theft is on the rise," said Jerry Flowers, chief agent of investigations for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.
The state's open spaces make it difficult for ranchers to keep track of all their cattle and rising prices for cattle, which can fetch about $3,000 per head, have helped fuel the problem, he said.
"Meth is a significant problem with people who steal cattle," Flowers said. "We found the presence of meth to be more and more common with people who steal livestock. It's easy, quick money."
All the suspects identified in the ring this week are between 16 and 22 years of age. They are thought to have sold tens of thousands of dollars worth of cattle over the past several months, including $27,000 in a single sale, Flowers said.
About three in four people arrested for cattle rustling in Oklahoma have a methamphetamine addiction, he said.
The stolen cattle usually have their ear tag IDs removed or replaced and are sold at local barn sales, officials said.
Oklahoma criminal law allows for sentences of up to 10 years in jail per head of stolen livestock, officials said.
Rancher J.R. Barnes recently had five head of cattle stolen from his farm, costing him about $1,500.
"I sure as hell don't like it when they steal our stuff," he said. "Everything we got, we work for and that's what makes me mad.
"I kind of get personally acquainted with my cattle - talk to them - and they come in and haul them off," Barnes said.
(Reporting by Heide Brandes; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Eric Beech)