Dawn is a slash of red above the mist of Cypress Bayou, but Slim Hulen has been awake for hours pushing his big Ford down dirt roads, hunting rustlers who struck again last night.
"I'd say one group is probably responsible for all these," Hulen, 67, drawled, wheeling his car to a stop, never unhooking the hand gripped to his belt, from which is slung a .357 magnum revolver. "A ring of professionals. The (methods of operation) are the same."
The modus operandi in this theft, one of a series along the creek-drained country of East Texas, was a tractor trailer. It was backed against the gate of a small weaning pasture packed with fat yearling calves.
31 Head Vanish
A makeshift chute funneled the beef into the trailer. In half an hour, the truck, the thieves and 31 head of cattle (estimated value, $12,000) vanished like a cargo of lost souls. Their likely destination: a black market slaughterhouse.
For Hulen, a veteran cow detective--"special rangers" they call them in Texas--this has been a season of frustration.
Cattle rustling is on the rise--and not just in Texas, which grows a tenth of the nation's 102 million head of cattle, but in all the big cow states.
In Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Colorado, cattle are being butchered on the range by "deep freeze" rustlers, who bury the hides--delaying detection--stock their own freezers and sell the remainder to unscrupulous meat dealers. Occasionally, stolen meat ends up in grocery freezer cases, inspectors say. A beef carcass is hard to trace.
In California, city boys on motorcycles round up calves straying across government land and pack them away on pickups.
Saddles Also Stolen
And not just beef, but the equipment of herding is filched: trailers, saddles, tractors, hitches, harnesses. One popular item: frozen bull semen.
Why the increase in rustling?
Beef is at a peak price level and herds are at their smallest in five years. In stock market parlance, there are more thieves chasing fewer animals.
"(Beef) prices are up, and that encourages rustlers to go to work," said John Ross, executive vice president of the California cattlemen's organization, whose members own 2.5 million head of beef and dairy stock.
"But, damn it," he says, "this is the first time in six years ranchers have come anywhere near profitability. Every cow taken really hurts."
How many are taken? Nobody knows, at least on a national level. Regionally, the figures are disheartening: In California in 1986 more than 2,300 head were lost, strayed or stolen, according to the Bureau of Livestock Identification, and surveys show losses have been running 20% higher in the last 12 months. In Texas, the value of rustled goods ran to nearly $3 million in 1987 alone; Hulen's 11-county district has lost 150 to 200 weaning calves since June.
Herds Sharply Culled
"This is a net liquidation year," said Tommy Beall, marketing director for the National Cattleman's Assn. "Cattle numbers are down by at least 2 million head." In the last five years, the nation's herds have been culled by 15 million head.
"Cattlemen are just reacting to today's markets," he said. "Land values, production costs and the simple economics of consumer demand caused ranchers to roll back the size of their herds."
Until recently, farm subsidies encouraged dairymen to slaughter their stock, adding more beef to an already glutted market. Today, the dairy slaughter has ended, supply is closer to demand and prices are pushing upward.
The value of yearlings, for instance, has gone up an average of 30% since last year, said Jody Henderson, special assistant for the Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Assn. A calf bringing $300 in 1986 now is worth $400 to $450.
"Cattle markets went up big (from) May to October, and that's when we lost most of our yearlings," Henderson said.
To stem the losses, cattlemen are turning to the tried and true methods of the past: the tracking skills of cattle detectives. The Texas cattle raisers pay 32 full-time gun-toting detectives to watch the herds, a tradition going back 110 years, to when gunslingers were contracted to round up the cowboys who "rushed and hustled" unbranded cattle off the open range, hence the term "rustlers."
A full registry of brands, maintained by computer, helps detect stolen cattle. But an old-fashioned device called a running iron, which can change one brand to look like another, still helps rustlers foil the best of computerized detecting. Besides, branding is largely voluntary.
"The western part (of Texas) is good about branding, but the eastern part is not," Henderson said. "They're not used to branding, and nobody's going to force them to do it."
In Wyoming, branding is required only on the open range. But brands do little good when animals are slaughtered, and even eaten, on the spot.
Not 'Poor and Hungry'
"I haven't any sympathy for these guys," said Robert Budd, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Assn. "These guys aren't poor and hungry. If they were poor and hungry, they couldn't afford a vehicle and the equipment it takes to do the job. With that money, they could have gone to McDonald's and bought a Big Mac."
Some of the tracking requires unique skills. Bull semen, for instance, is tough to recover. The material packs into small spaces--it can be stolen in a thermos--and is marketable anywhere in the world. It can be as precious as gold. When thieves in Wisconsin ripped off a few straws of frozen semen from the celebrated sire Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation, they made off with the equivalent of $80,000.
Thieves often steal precisely what they want, leaving behind other items of value. Hulen recalls one ranch at which thieves relied on the rancher's own horses to do the roundup.
"They saddled up the ponies, rounded up the cows, unsaddled the ponies, put the saddles back in the barn, tied up the ponies and drove off with the cows," he said. "They obviously didn't have a market for saddles or horses."
In California, 70 miles north of Sacramento, rustlers recently made off with a Caterpillar tractor, used by a cattlemen's group to clear fields. It was worth $140,000.
"We're pretty vulnerable because we can't watch each animal and each piece of equipment 24 hours a day," said David Forster, a Maxwell, Calif., rancher whose family homestead dates to a Spanish land grant.
One hopeful sign, he said, is that law enforcement officers are now being trained to recognize signs of a crime in progress. "If they spot a trailer full of cattle, all with different brands, they're going to be mighty suspicious."
There are limits to what can be done. Often a rancher doesn't know he's been hit by rustlers until weeks later.
"Cattle tend to roam," Forster said. "You might think they're lost in the brush when they've actually been stolen and long since sold to the butcher."