By Angela Kocherga
FORT DAVIS, Texas -- The drought that led to a spike in beef prices now has ranchers coping with cattle theft.
"We're seeing a real upswing," said Larry Gray, executive director of Law Enforcement for the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raiser's Association.
The association's members pay for 30 full-time special rangers who investigate theft cases.
"Our rangers last year investigated close to 800 cases and recovered $500,000 in stolen goods," said Robert McKnight, a rancher in the Fort Davis area.
McKnight takes precautions to protect his herd including varying the schedule for checking on cattle out to pasture.
"We are out on our country all the time and we know what's going on," said McKnight, who has a major cattle operation in West Texas and is working to rebuild his herd after the drought. "We struggled like everyone else. We were able to pasture some cattle but we had to thin our numbers down as you saw all across the Southwest and the state of Texas."
Ranchers who were able to weather the drought without selling their entire herd can now get a hefty price per head ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 depending on the weight and type of cattle.
Those prices are behind the rise of what some may think of as an old fashioned crime: cattle rustling. But these days, rather than rounding up cattle on horseback, thieves use trucks and can be out of state in a matter of hours. Cows that are close to roadways or corralled are most vulnerable.
"We're always looking for tracks and different things and careful when we leave something in a corral that's penned up. We want to make sure we're checking on that pretty often," said McKnight.
"East Texas is a hot spot," Gray said, saying it's because there's a high density of cattle and more small ranches. "'Mom and pop' ranchers are most at risk. That little herd of cattle is their 401K retirement. It's devastating."
Theft is the downside of what's turning out to be a great year for West Texas.
"It's raining and the cows are fat," said Oscar Medley, a retired high school principal and rancher.
His wife taught elementary school for 34 years.
"Both of our great grandparents came out here in the 1890s. And we're still here," Medley said.
Back in those days, the saying was, "Cattle thieves will be shot and the survivors will be shot again," Medley said.
Now ranchers can rely on special rangers to crack down on cattle thieves.
"If you want to cause trouble here, there will be special rangers investigating the case. And I think that's a great deterrent," McKnight said. Video.