Rustling, the staple of "B" Western movies and the cause of countless hangings, shootings and lynchings, is alive and well in the New West.
But the tools of the trade have changed for the good guys and the bad guys. A fast horse and a sure shot are no match for the modern rustlers' pickup trucks, trailers and semitrucks."People don't realize that rustlers have changed with the times; they've mechanized," said James Hoy, an expert on the Old West who teaches English at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kan.
The U.S. cattle industry lost 19,700 animals worth about $12.1 million to theft in 1995, according to federal Department of Agriculture figures. The figures show about 100 cattle were lost in Utah. Actual losses are far worse; those findings do not include horses, sheep and other popular targets, which are tracked by individual states.
Texas topped the nation for rustling that year, with losses of almost $2.1 million.
"As long as there are cattle, there probably will be rustlers," said Julie Bousman, spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
A hundred years ago, cattle thieves would herd the animals by horseback into remote canyons.
"They would leave a sizable trail in the dirt," said R.T. Burton, a private investigator who has chased rustlers for 20 years. "Today we chase them in cars and using radios, but they don't leave a trail. The highways just don't leave a trail."
Rustlers can even take their cows to go. Some use electric chain saws to butcher the cattle on the spot. Some rigs are even refrigerated with meat processing equipment inside.
"It's not a problem to process these animals while driving down the road," said Kelly Hamilton, a law enforcement officer with the Wyoming Livestock Board. "One guy's driving, while the other's in the back processing the meat."
Wyoming ranchers lose more than $500,000 a year to rustlers. In Niobrara County, a hotbed of rustling near the Nebraska and South Dakota borders, Barbara and Monty Fenway thought they could protect their stock by keeping them closer to home.
"We practically lived with them all summer," Barbara Fenway said.
But early one evening, she spotted an unfamiliar truck in the pasture. The rustlers must have spotted her too. The next thing she saw was the truck kicking up dust as it retreated into the dusk and a fold in the Plains.
"The next morning we saw tracks from a pickup and a horse trailer and found out that a neighbor was missing some yearlings," she said.
Soon after the Fenways started their modest, 250-cow operation in northeastern Wyoming, today's rubber tire rustlers started helping themselves. The Fenways returned from vacation in July 1996 to find their animals scattered on their 13,000-acre spread. One cow's face was "ripped to shreds."
"Cattle rustlers were the furthest thing from our minds," she said. But at roundup three months later, 13 cows and 10 calves were missing.
Burton, whose five-man operation in Tombstone, Ariz., is licensed in all 50 states, said he is generally hired to investigate the theft of breeding stock or the disappearance of large numbers of livestock.
The majority of rustling, he said, targets general stock stolen for meat and butchered.
"Sometimes they're stolen to sell down the road at a cattle auction, sometimes they're stolen by an individual who just wants to butcher it and eat the beef for a year," he said.
It's easy for rustlers to drive into a pasture at night, herd five, 10 or 20 cows into a cattle truck and make it to an auction in some other state with lax or nonexistent brand inspection laws the next morning, Burton said.
Ranchers know there is little chance of recovering stolen animals, so many cases are never reported.
Local sheriff's departments and state brand inspectors, responsible for investigating livestock theft, are often understaffed or underfunded. But high-tech equipment is helping the good guys.
Burton said he frequently brings motion detectors and night vision goggles to stakeouts.
At crime scenes, state and local investigators dust gate handles for fingerprints, take plaster molds of shoe prints and tire tracks and, if lucky, find a cigarette butt or two to run through DNA testing.
Hamilton, of the livestock board, has also injected computer identification chips under the skin of a handful of Wyoming cattle. Although the method is not widely used in the cattle industry, livestock sale barns or stock shows equipped with scanners that read the chips can identify stolen animals.
In the old days, a rustler could expect a swift hanging or a bullet in the head.
Today, rustling is a felony, punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. But the thieves rarely spend much time behind bars.
"I don't think I've ever seen anyone given over two years," said Jack Chase, who recently retired after 38 years as a brand inspector in North Dakota. "It's hard to convince a judge that stealing a cow is a crime."
Crimes such as domestic violence, illegal drugs and drunken driving have left rustling in the dust.
"Back in the wild West, you could wander down the street drunk and no one would care, but if I stole your cow there would be a sheriff's posse after you," Hamilton said. "Nowadays, the courts are so flooded with other things, livestock crimes have just taken a back seat."