By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) -- Watch out on the range, pardner, because cattle rustling in Texas is up.
The number of cattle stolen from Texas ranches in 2010 rose 15 percent from the previous year and was three times the figure of three years ago, according to data released on Friday.
The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which employs special investigators to work with lawmen to investigate cattle theft, said the number of cattle stolen in 2010 reached 7,400 head compared with 6,400 the previous year and only 2,400 in 2007.
"We attribute much of that to the economy," the Association's Carmen Fenton said.
She says high levels of rural unemployment and poverty lead to more cattle thefts, and she says rustlers have noticed the skyrocketing price of beef.
Prices for live cattle surged by more than 20 percent during 2010 to around 110 cents per pound by the end of the year, based on Chicago futures market. Prices have continued to rise this year and now stand at more than 120 cents a pound.
Rancher Emil 'Sonny' Seewald says stealing cattle can be much more lucrative than other types of theft.
"On the cattle they can get the full market price," he said. "If they steal a car or the stereo out of your car, they won't get but ten cents on the dollar."
Cattlemen said the wide open spaces of ranches makes them difficult to patrol, although more cattle ranchers are installing security cameras to keep watch over their herds.
"Its hard to stay there and watch them all, and we have a lot of absentee ranchers," Seewald said.
Fenton says while some sophisticated rings use helicopters to steal entire herds, most cattle rustling involves one or two head at a time and driving them away in a pickup truck.
The solution to cattle rustling today is the same as it was in the wild west of the 1880s, branding the cattle with a unique mark with a hot iron.
"They can certainly brand their cattle, that helps for a quick recovery," she said. "They register that brand with the county."
If a brand is stolen, the authorities send out a warning to all auction barns and the cattle may be detected if they are sold.
Cattle theft in Texas now is classified as theft and depending on the value of the cattle stolen, the crook can get between two and 20 years in prison.
(Editing by Wendell Marsh and Greg McCune)