Cattle rustlers making a comeback in Oklahoma - KTEN.com - Texoma news, weather and sports

Cattle rustlers making a comeback in Oklahoma

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Investigators have linked a rise in cattle rustling with drug addiction. (KTEN) Investigators have linked a rise in cattle rustling with drug addiction. (KTEN)

ADA, Okla. -- One of the oldest Wild West crimes — cattle rustling — is making a comeback in Oklahoma.

Just ask rancher Jet McCoy.

"We started coming up cattle short, and once we got to looking around and doing a little digging, we couldn't find them," he said.

About 100 head of cattle had disappeared. McCoy asked neighbors and even rented a small plane to search the area with no luck.

"Once we covered all those bases and realized they're not in this area, then we realized the only other possible option is that somebody's stealing them," he said.

That's when McCoy called the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, which knows this scenario all too well.

"We will have reported to us — just in my unit alone — anywhere on average to about 1,500 head of cattle a year," Special Agent Jerry Flowers said.

Oklahoma's open spaces make it difficult for ranchers to keep track of all their cattle, and rising livestock prices -- which can reach $3,000 per head -- have helped fuel the problem.

"One of the first things that we look at is: Who's working on that ranch, and who could have access to do this to you right under your nose and you not even see it," Flowers said. "Nine times out of 10, it's a ranch hand."

And that's who was arrested for stealing McCoy's cattle: his own ranch hands, Larry Smith and David Wallace. The men were charged with larceny of domestic animals after authorities caught them selling McCoy's cattle at the Ada Livestock Arena.

"When something like that happens, it really is a terrible experience," McCoy said. "You realize this is going to be a huge hit to your bottom line, and you know a lot of those guys. Even if they do get convicted, a lot of times the effects on the cattle producer will last longer than their sentence will."

The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture said the culprits are often methamphetamine addicts selling stolen livestock to pay for their drug habits.

"This is really starting to hurt the ranching community, because a lot of those guys that live in a rural area and know they can get a quick fix from stealing a couple of steers, if those guys don't get caught and are never convicted, then it just becomes a bigger problem," McCoy said.

Investigators say about three in four people arrested for cattle rustling in Oklahoma have a methamphetamine addiction.

"We find that consistent with a lot of the cases we investigate today," Flowers said. "These guys out here with the quick money that they can make by stealing cattle or agricultural equipment, turns right around to get their next fix of dope that they're ready."

And with no end in sight for the opioid epidemic, ranchers are urged to brand their livestock for positive identification.

"Oklahoma number one is not a 'brand' state; we don't require branding in Oklahoma," Flowers said. "But we do encourage branding, because a brand on your cow is like a tag on your car — it's going to tell me who owns that head of livestock."

Texas also does not require cattle to be branded.

In 2016, the Oklahoma House passed a bill making livestock theft a felony, with a penalty up to three years in prison for each animal stolen. But McCoy and other ranchers say there is still much more that needs to be done.

"I think it's time for people to start taking notice and realizing that the cattle business is a huge part of this state," McCoy said. "It's not hurting just the ranchers in this state, but it's hurting everybody."

If you're a rancher having problems with cattle rustlers, here are some helpful contacts:

Special Ranger Troy McKinney
Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association
903-429-4011 or 903-267-3604 (cell)

Special Agent Jerry Flowers
Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry
405-522-6102 or 405-317-7711 (cell) 
jerry.flowers@ag.ok.gov

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