Amid rising costs of beef and a crippling drought, ranchers and cattlemen in the American West are facing the bizarre resurgence of an outmoded scourge from frontier times.
This week, Oklahoma officials arrested two of five identified suspects in a cattle-rustling ring that is believed to have sold tens of thousands of dollars worth of stolen cattle over the past several months, making as much as $27,000 in a single sale. The arrests mark the latest in a growing trend of cattle theft across the region.
According to the authorities, the vast majority of Oklahoma cattle thefts in recent years have been driven by a distinctly modern phenomenon — methamphetamine addicts seeking easy money to fund their habit.
"We've seen an elevated number of reported thefts, and certainly actual thefts over the past couple of years. What is very concerning is the link to drug use," Michael Casey, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association, told VICE News. "Cattle theft is devastating to small, family farmer-ranchers, where the average herd size in Oklahoma is going to be around 30 head. So if you steal two, three, or four head, that's a significant loss and major economic damage."
According to data from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, reported thefts more than doubled from 2013 to 2014, from 13 to 30. Casey noted that the cases averaged about eight cattle per theft. Cattle rustling cost Oklahoma ranchers an estimated $4.5 million in 2014.
Observers say the increase can be attributed to various factors, including a severe drought in portions of the region that has forced farmers to cut their herds, driving the price of cattle up. Because a single animal can bring in as much as $3,000 at auction, cattle — which can be herded with relative ease — make attractive targets for thieves looking for quick cash.
Because Oklahoma does not have branding laws and does not require sellers to file paperwork documenting their ownership, stolen cattle are difficult to find once at auction.
"If I've got a 30-head of 700 pound steer that I'm going to sell at the market on Saturday, what happens Friday night is these old boys that are out here stealing cattle, they look for that kind of thing," Jerry Flowers, chief agent of investigations for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, told VICE News. "They'll back that trailer right up to the fence and load those cattle out and go. We've seen that happen numerous times."
According to Flowers, roughly three in four arrests in Oklahoma for cattle larceny are linked to methamphetamine.
"What we've found on my side of the fence working these investigations is that a large portion — I'm talking 75 percent, maybe even more — of the individuals that we encounter that steal cattle are doing it to resupply their needs for illegal narcotics," he said, "and one of the choice illegal narcotics in this state is methamphetamine."
'It only makes sense that the more Mexican meth is consumed in Oklahoma, we're going to see more property crimes, whether it's cattle or anything else to feed that addiction.'
Oklahoma has been a hotbed of meth use since the 1990s. A 2012 survey found Tulsa County to contain 979 meth labs — the most of any county in the country.
Thanks to tightened restrictions on precursor ingredients like ephedrine, meth production has dropped significantly in Oklahoma and across the country. But Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, told VICE News that diminished local output has given way to a flood of expensive foreign product.
"I can only speak for Oklahoma, but our partners in other states say the same thing, that while meth labs are down, meth addiction and meth use has never been higher because addicts are switching to Mexican meth that's pouring across the border," Woodward said. "We would comfortably say that only about 5 percent of Oklahoma meth that's consumed here is cooked here."
The rising cost of meth is motivating addicts to turn to crime to afford what was once the product of a largely DIY operation.
"It only makes sense that the more Mexican meth is consumed in Oklahoma, we're going to see more property crimes, whether it's cattle or anything else to feed that addiction," Woodward added.
Ranchers are experiencing similar upticks in the number of missing livestock in nearby states like Texas, Missouri, and Colorado, where the rate of cattle theft nearly tripled from 2010 to 2011. Whether driven by an addiction to meth or simply a golden opportunity for quick cash, rustlers are crippling small ranchers who depend on livestock for income.
"It was devastating," B. J. Holloway, an Oklahoma rancher who had six cattle stolen last year, told VICE News. "That's my life savings, you know, that I've been working, trying to have some all my life, and suddenly it's gone."
State lawmakers are considering measures in response to the spike in theft. Last month, two Oklahoma legislators filed bills to increase the penalty for cattle theft from three to 10 years imprisonment to between five and 15 years, and raise the financial retribution cap from $500,000 to $750,000.
"Something needed to happen," Representative Casey Murdock, who sponsored one of the two bills, told VICE News. "I run cattle myself for a living, I'm not a hobby farmer. I put food on the table for my family by running cattle. You don't recover as easily as if someone comes and steals a TV or steals your car."