A crime that was at the center of many Western movies is thriving in modern-day California as reports of cattle rustling are on the rise, state livestock officials said.
Greg Lawley, chief of the state's Bureau of Livestock Identification, said 1,317 head of cattle were stolen or reported missing last year. He told the Sacramento Bee that it's a 22 percent increase from prerecession numbers.
The USDA reports that cattle prices hit record highs in 2011 and 2012. One steer can sell for $1,000 or more.
Cattle ranchers hope a bill setting tougher fines and punishments that goes into effect Jan. 1 will serve as a deterrent. Previously, there were no set fines for cattle rustling. Next year, the crime will be punishable as a felony or misdemeanor with up to a $5,000 fine.
Currently, it can be common for rustlers to plead charges down to a misdemeanor.
"They'll get probation," said Justin Oldfield, vice president of government relations with the California Cattlemen's Association. "When people are punished, it's usually a fine and not jail time. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of seriousness from the courts."
Oldfield told the Bee that he is uncertain whether the new law will deter cattle theft, but he believes that it will create awareness.
"When you're talking about the value of a steer worth $1,000 or more, and you lose five of those — that's a substantial impact to an operation," he said. "It can make or break the bottom line for that year."
There are roughly 3 million head of cattle in California, most of them dairy cows. But 575,000 head roam the range, often with no more protection than a brand.
Last year, the livestock identification bureau identified and returned cattle worth $1.4 million to the owners. State officials say the crime probably is under-reported.
In 2010 Red Bluff rancher Candace Owen lost 25 calves to thieves.
"It's a terrible crime when you steal someone's livelihood," she said.
Officials say most thefts are inside jobs. Rustlers can load up a livestock trailer and be in another state in a matter of hours.
"The thing with stealing livestock, and especially cattle, is you can get 100 percent of its value, especially with unbranded animals," Lawley said. In most cases a brand is the only way to establish ownership.
The rise in cattle theft in California is part of a national trend. In 2012, more than 10,400 head of cattle and horses were reported missing or stolen to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association — a 36 percent increase from 2010.