By Zack Ponce
CARLSBAD >> Venture outside the city and vast tracts of dusty plains greet wondering adventurers around New Mexico, along with herds of cattle, whose only restriction upon complete freedom is a wobbly barbed-wire fence.
This is not the Eddy County of a century ago, but in terms of livestock crime, ranchers may as well be living in the Wild West. Technology has evolved and aided in the capture of criminals, but deterrence remains lacking.
"In some ways it's the same as it probably was in the 1800s, but probably not on quite as big a scale now as it was back then because there are better ways of tracking stuff," said Darrell Brown, the chairman of the New Mexico Beef Council who also does some ranching in Artesia.
Last week the Eddy County Sheriff's Office reported that a man was seen skinning a calf on the side of Rocking R Red Road near Armstrong Road in Hope, southwest of Artesia. The man gutted it and took the calf before police arrived on scene.
The Eddy County cattle growers are now offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the cattle rustler, double the amount of the original $500 reward posted immediately following the event.
The incident was a stark reminder that cattle theft, commonly known as "cattle rustling," remains part of everyday life, even in the 21st century.
Today internet databases and other electronic means of tracking allow law enforcement to spot cattle theft quicker and capture suspects easier.
"I've been here for more than 20 years, and it's changed dramatically for me because all of us have computers and such in our vehicles now," said Ray Baca, the director of the New Mexico Livestock Board. "Technology has been the number one factor. If somebody calls me and says (an animal) just got stolen, we are linked to other law enforcement plus (our database) alerts all of our inspectors at the sales barns as well to make sure somebody is not trying to sell them or dispose of them. It would actually alert the adjoining states of that theft as well."
Of the 11 states that have brand laws, New Mexico boasts the strongest legal recourse. The state Livestock Board is the oldest government entity in the state and was established in 1887, 25 years before New Mexico was granted statehood.
Board inspectors have the same authority as the New Mexico State Police — they can arrest and detain suspects and are not bound by any municipalities. The New Mexico Livestock Board's power is rare for a state agricultural inspection agency and is another reason agents are so effective in catching rustlers, according to Baca.
The culture of rural ranchers and farmers has remained similar to their 19th century counterparts as well, since many in Eddy County and elsewhere continue to pursue agricultural careers. With revenue riding on the backs of cattle and other livestock, some of the best policing comes from the ranchers themselves.
"Everybody tries to help each other out," said Woods Houghton, an agriculture extension agent. "If I get somebody's cattle wandering over onto my place, I'll put it up in the pen, look the brand up and give them a call and they'll come pick it up. If I can't figure out whose brand it is, I'll call the Livestock Board and they'll figure it out. If they can't figure out who it belongs to, then the state will take it and sell it and the money goes back into law enforcement."
Theft of entire herds of cattle is less prevalent today because of the increasing difficulty to sell livestock at markets where the Livestock Board inspects every deed of ownership. Cattle rustlers prefer to poach the animals and use the meat for sustenance, according to Houghton.
"There's less outright thievery than there used to be and it's now just more malicious vandalism of killing cattle, at least in my opinion." Houghton said. "Last year I got called out 12 times with cattle that we thought were shot."
Houghton has seen six of his cows shot throughout the course of his life.
Lisa Ogden, a rancher whose family has lived in Eddy County for generations and has around 20 head of cattle on rangeland near Black River, said she usually has one cow killed by a rustler each year. The burden of proof is stacked against ranchers, making it easier for rustlers to evade sentencing for the crime.
"We just recently lost a calf that was probably a 500-pound steer that was in my pasture by my house just south of Otis," Ogden said. "We had one that was butchered and (the rustler) left fingerprints on bottles and we had the evidence but if the fingerprints aren't on record that doesn't do any good. So primarily someone has to see them do the rustling or the butchering or whatever you want to call it and then be willing to turn them in."
The New Mexico Livestock Board had eight total larceny reports in Fiscal Year 2014, of which four were in the southeastern portion of the state. Fiscal Year 2013 saw 17 larceny reports in the state and eight in FY 2012.
The killings baffle and frustrate most of the Southeastern New Mexico ranching community.
"I don't know if people realize just how close a bond that we have with our livestock," Brown said. "Yes, they are our profit and loss but we're not going to mistreat them. We're going to do everything we can to not allow other people to mistreat them."
Baca said the Livestock Board is investigating a rash of larcenies involving sheep in Northwestern New Mexico and that even today there is no good way to defend against a determined rustler.
"There's just no way that the ranch personnel can monitor every acre of the ranch and watch all the cattle all the time," Brown said.
Trucks have replaced horses as the preferred method of transportation for criminals and yet padlocks remain the only guardian of a rancher's four-legged friend.