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Modern Rustlers Killing Cattle for ‘Fun’ or Freezers

Times Staff Writer

Bill Tulloch, his eyes permanently squinted against the sun, surveys the vast rolling brushland of his family’s ranch from atop Mt. Laguna. He points to a deep canyon, growing with manzanita, sage, chaparral and yucca, where his cattle find water and grazing pasture. In an open space, next to a stand of pine, several head of cattle can be seen.

In other canyons, out of view, are many more cattle. The country is so remote, Tulloch said, it is impossible to see all his cattle in a week.

“It’s hard to keep track of how many we have and how many we don’t have,” he said.

That is part of the reason that a crime as old as the West--cattle rustling--is plaguing ranchers in the back country of San Diego County. Sheriff’s deputies say the 20 or so rustling cases reported in the last year are just a fraction of the problem.

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Not Traditional Rustling

It is not rustling in its traditional sense--no cowboys in black hats herding cattle off the ranch in the middle of the night. Rather, many of the modern rustlers steal and butcher cattle for personal use--or what one rancher called the “freezer market.” Others seem to see cattle as easy target practice.

Ranchers such as Tulloch blame the problem on flatlanders who come to get away from suburban life. “The only thing this land is good for is running cattle,” he said. “People look at this land as recreation. We see it as a business enterprise.”

In addition to their own land, many ranchers lease grazing rights from the U.S. Forest Service. They must share the Cleveland National Forest with hunters, hikers and campers. Hunting is allowed on cattle range.

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There are times when the sound of gunfire can be heard echoing in the canyons. “It sounds like the Civil War out here sometimes,” Tulloch said.

Hunting for animals like rabbit and coyote is open year-round, and the Cleveland National Forest attracts serious hunters as well as trigger-happy “plinkers.”

In May, three sailors from the San Diego area were arrested for shooting and stealing a 700-pound cow belonging to Tulloch. It is one of the few cases of cattle rustling in which officers have had enough evidence to make an arrest. According to Deputy Donald Sellers, a livestock investigator in the Pine Valley sheriff’s substation, of the 20 or so cases reported in the last year, only four cases were “workable.”

“There’s a lot of loss by ranchers, and there’s no way of knowing how many are stolen,” Sellers said. “We suspect there is more loss to theft and kills than we have on record.”

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Tulloch said he alone lost 10 head of cattle to rustlers last year. Six had been shot and left, and four others just disappeared, a loss of about $4,800.

‘That’s Vandalism’

Art Alford, a Mesa Grande rancher, said a year ago he found one of his heifers lying in the road, shot in the head. “That’s not theft,” he said. “That’s vandalism. It’s cattle butchering.” The year before in the same location, he said, a cow was shot.

Deputy Richard Ziepke said there are three types of rustling cases. Killing and butchering cattle for personal use is probably the most common. Ranchers may find a cow with the legs or hindquarters gone.

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Also common is the “frustrated sportsman.” According to Ziepke, “They’ll drop a steer and just leave it. There’s some excitement in seeing what your weapon can do. They leave very little, if any, evidence.”

Cattle theft for market is the most rare. “You’ve got the cattle thief who steals calves to sell or add to a herd,” Ziepke said. Because cattlemen identify their animals with brands as well as earmarks, it is difficult to get a stolen animal past a brand inspector at the feed lot. But, calves that have not yet been branded sometimes disappear.

Driving down a wooded, isolated forest service road in his Chevy S-10 pickup, Tulloch pointed to cattle belonging to his neighbor, Jim Kemp. A dozen cows and calves rested comfortably in the road. They rose slowly, their eyes widened, as if annoyed by the disturbance.

“That’s a prime example of how easy it is to shoot a cow in here,” Tulloch said.

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Most ranches in this area consist of many parcels of land, separated by national forest or other private land. Ranchers run their cattle on both federal and private land, over rocky hills, through canyons and forest.

‘Now I Own the Place’

Tulloch, 59, came here 35 years ago to work as a ranch hand for George Sawday, one of the biggest ranchers in San Diego County. He met Sawday’s granddaughter, Betty Cumming, and decided to stay. “Now I own the place,” he laughed.

The Sawday Ranch holdings, which have been in Betty Tulloch’s family for more than 100 years, are scattered far and wide. To the east of the Laguna Mountains, in the desert, is the San Felipe Ranch, once part of a Spanish land grant.

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To the south, near Pine Valley, is the Coogan Ranch, home of Tulloch’s son, Ben. And at Witch Creek, 12 miles east of Ramona, is the original Sawday ranch house, built in the 1870s, where Tulloch, Betty and their three daughters live. Between the two family outposts stretch 45 miles.

Tulloch refused to discuss the acreage in the family’s holdings and the number of cattle he owns. “It’s like asking how much money somebody has in the bank. It’s personal.”

‘Difficult to Just Break Even’

He said the reality of ranching is a lot of hard work and not much to show for it. “It’s getting to the point where the cattle business is so bad, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to just break even.” According to Tulloch, the per capita beef consumption is 70 pounds per year, down from 110 a few years ago.

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With a price tag of $500 to $600 for a cow, these ranchers worry that the number of rustling cases is rising at a time when the market is dropping.

Alford said, “It’s our living. If you lose one, you can figure a $500 bill. There’s not that much margin. I don’t care if you’re big or small. A loss is a loss.”

Bob Garbani, a rancher in the Pine Valley area, said he lost two 3-year-old heifers earlier this year. But, he will not know until the fall gathering whether any more were lost. Three years ago two full-grown calves and two yearlings disappeared, and he believes they were stolen. He estimated the loss at $1,400. He said he thinks rustling has grown worse over the last five years.

‘They Just Disappear’

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“They just disappear. You don’t find any sign of them. The whole animal disappears, blood and all. All you see is truck or trailer tracks.”

There are three deputies in San Diego County who investigate the theft and killing of cattle, horses and other livestock. Sellers and Ziepke said rustling is a difficult crime to solve. They compare the work to that of a homicide inspector. Both men recently completed a course in livestock investigation at the College of the Redwoods in Humboldt County.

Most cases cannot even be investigated because the animals are found too late and are partially decomposed--or they are gone entirely. The deputies stress close working relationships with the ranchers and encourage them to report any killings or missing cattle.

“It’s frustrating because it’s so hard to catch up with (rustlers),” Tulloch said. “In order to convict someone of rustling, you have to catch him in the act. It puts a lot of pressure on the sheriff to get enough evidence to take to the D.A. We keep the sheriff notified about what’s going on out here. We try to cooperate with everyone.”

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Target Practice Areas

Ranchers also work with U.S. Forest Service officials who have jurisdiction over much of their pasture land. Dan Gustafson, resource protection officer, said the forest service hopes to cut down on shooting in the forest by establishing designated areas for target practice.

“You can shoot most anyplace in the national forest,” he said. “People are out there doing their target practicing and see a cow and beat into it. There are just so many individuals out with guns. They decide to take target practice on a cow if they don’t see a forest service sign.”

Ranchers like Tulloch and Alford complain that they pay for grazing rights but have no say over how the federal land is managed. In some places, forest service roads, designated for off-road recreation vehicles, continue through private holdings. Alford said people will shoot the locks off their gates in order to get on their land.

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