Special rangers still busting cattle rustlers

State's oldest livestock organization's cattle cops protect ranchers, herds from thieves

SAN ANTONIO – While it's been a rainy year in South Texas, lingering drought conditions across the country are continuing to drive up beef prices.

That's helping make the old crime of cattle rustling popular once again.

Texas has a dedicated group of lawmen on the hunt for cattle thieves, 30 certified peace officers who work for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), the state's oldest livestock organization.

"We've been around for 138 years," said Special Ranger Sonny Seewald. "Mostly we work on livestock theft, cattle and horse theft and anything agricultural related."

Seewald investigates cattle rustling cases and other agriculture-related crimes in a six-county region that includes Bexar County.

While some people outside of the ranching industry may think cattle rustling is a thing of the past, Seewald said it's still occurring.

According to TSCRA, last year its rangers investigated 790 reports of cattle theft, with 5,790 head reported missing or stolen. Rangers recovered 4,243 of those animals, returning nearly $6 million in stolen property to owners.

With beef prices soaring, the crime isn't going away.

"It pays more now than it did back then," Seewald said. "The thieves now will get the same price for the cattle as the man that owns it. They'll run it through the sale barn here and they'll get the same money. A regular thief, he'll get 10 cents on a dollar on stuff that he steals in town so they can't afford not to steal (cattle)."

It's easy money for the crooks. An average 500-pound calf can earn a thief $1,200 with little effort.

"They'll look for a place where nobody lives and cattle are on the property and they'll watch, get the routine, make sure no one is coming," Seewald said. "They'll cut the fence, come in (and) shake a sack of cubes. Cattle are used to coming to that feed. (They'll) use their own pens, back up, load 'em up, and they're gone."

With just 30 rangers to cover the entire state of Texas and portions of Oklahoma along the Texas border, the association relies heavily on brand inspectors to keep an eye on markets and sale barns.

If there's a report of stolen or missing cattle in Seguin, inspector Jay McCown will try to identify them. But with fewer owners using brands, it's a challenge.

"I'm looking for earmarks, any kind of brand or number brand, anything on the animal, (including) the color -- a very good color description sometimes helps us a bunch," McCown said. "If your cow was stolen last night or she's missing and they contact me and say, 'Hey, we got a black cow, ear tag number such and such, no brands unfortunately, but look for her', we try to find them, but it's kind of hard without a brand on them. That's why the main thing is get a good identification of a brand on your cattle and that really helps down the road for you and us as well."

Right now most of the cattle theft is happening in North and East Texas, where cattle are more plentiful. In South Texas, Seewald is dealing with other thefts from ranches.

"Down here, we're having a lot of trouble with stealing trailers, welding machines (or) four-wheelers, because we are short of cattle," Seewald said. "We got some folks over there in Wilson County (who have) been stealing trailers all over the country. There's a suspect in jail now, we just got to try to put all our things together."

No matter the crime, the cattle cops are ready to run off anyone trying to sell what isn't theirs.

"It's like the Rangers tell us brand inspectors, 'Y'all keep a hard job there and an eye open and you keep the crooks away," McCown said.

Seewald said owners can make things easier for investigators by doing a better job of documenting their property by branding herds and taking pictures of other valuables that might be targeted by thieves.

"So when you do see that they're missing, you can get your hands on it right quick," Seewald said. "That gives us the information and gives us a better chance of getting them caught."

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