By Jon Herskovitz and Heide Brandes
SEMINOLE, Okla. (Reuters) - Cattle rustling, a crime associated with the Wild West, is on the rebound in the heart of the U.S. cattle industry, driven largely by ranch hands stealing livestock to get money to feed their drug habits.
The crime has evolved from rustlers on horseback driving their plunder across the range, often portrayed in the early 1960s U.S. TV program "Rawhide," to modern-day cowboys using pickup trucks and trailers to make off with cattle.
The recent rise in rustling is driven by the spread of heroin and methamphetamines to rural areas, an issue that has dogged states across the nation. In Oklahoma and neighboring Texas, lonesome cattle grazing on thousand-acre ranches that can fetch about $1,000 to $3,000 at market are proving to be easy targets for rustlers on the down and out.
Among Oklahoma cattle thieves, about 75 percent are doing so to feed addictions, most often to meth amphetamines, according to Jerry Flowers, a retired Oklahoma City police detective and the state’s top "cattle cop."
"Some city meth head is going to be kicking your door in and taking your TV. An outlaw here in the country is going to be cutting your fence and taking your cattle,” said Flowers.
“Some of these old dopers are working cowboys. They know cattle. They look the part and they walk the walk," said Flowers, whose title is the chief agent for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture's Investigative Services, one of the few specialized units for crimes on the farm.
The thefts are made easier by a lax regulatory system at cattle markets that allows thieves to pocket thousands of dollars and then slip away into the countryside.
Branding is recommended but measures that could cut down on theft, such as microchips and centralized registries, are not likely to be adapted by ranchers typically wary of more bureaucracy.
CRYING WOLF WHEN CATTLE GO MISSING
Thefts in Oklahoma amount to only a few million dollars a year in its $5 billion annual cattle industry, but the effect can be devastating on farmers scraping to get by in a market where margins are thin and hours long.
Rustlers hit the ranch of Kevin and Carole O'Daniel in the darkness of a Saturday night earlier this year. They disabled a security light and rounded up calves in a pen near a loading chute, likely shaking a feed bag to attract the livestock.
Within a few minutes, the rustlers had 15 head loaded on a trailer and were on their way to a market in Bristow, about an hour away. The calves were sold for $14,036, in a few hours gathering a sum equal to half the average salary of a ranch hand in the area.
For the O'Daniels, like most ranchers hit by rustlers, it took a while to realize the calves were stolen. They have to make counts, check gates and walk the fence to spot problems.
"I hated to call the authorities but you don’t want to cry wolf unless you are 100 percent sure," Kevin O'Daniel said.
By Monday, they called in the local sheriff, who turned the case over to the Oklahoma's Cowboy Cops.
Special Agent Ricky Rushing, who wears jeans affixed with a hand-tooled Western belt and holster, was on their front porch in a few hours. He followed leads and soon had suspects in mind - they happened to be neighbors of the O'Daniels.
In the Wild West of the 1800s, rustling was a hanging offense. Theft of a single head of cattle these days in Oklahoma can bring from three to 10 years behind bars. In Texas, it is a third degree felony to steal livestock and can bring two to 10 years in prison.
To fight the rustlers in Oklahoma, Flowers put together a unit of 10 people who have experience in law enforcement and on the ranch. They conduct about 300 investigations a year in a state about twice as large as Portugal.
There have been about 2,500 to 3,000 head of cattle reported stolen to the group each year, with about 45 percent recovered or tracked down. In larger Texas, the cattle cops are more numerous, with the largest division being the 30 special rangers working for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
The cattle raisers group in Texas has nearly 17,000 members who manage about 4 million head of cattle. It has had rangers in some form since its inception about 140 years ago, and the current group is sanctioned by the state police force.
"In any state where there are cattle, they have the same problems that we do, but just not on as large a scale," said Larry Gray, executive director of the group's law enforcement division.
Last year, slightly more than 3,900 cattle were reported stolen, and the group investigates about 850 to 1,200 agricultural crimes a year.
Other states have also stepped up police presence on their farms and have turned to Texas and Oklahoma for help.
At their Seminole, Oklahoma, farm, Carol and Kevin O'Daniel have great respect for the work of the agricultural investigators. But they say the problem of theft from farms is persistent and not likely to go away.
"Almost every year, you are going to get something stole somewhere," O'Daniel said.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Edward Tobin and Dan Grebler)