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Cattle rustling is still big business in Florida and it's raising the cost of beef on your table ... by David Wilkening, All Florida staff writer. 0 - t I 1 Adds Higbie: "For every one reported stolen, there are ten not reported." Investigating the seriousness of cattle rustling in the Florida Panhandle, reporter Michael Albertson of the Pensacola News-Journal talked to several law enforcement officials. In the opinion of J. N. Banks, deputy sheriff in Okaloosa County: "This county probably has more cattle stealing than any other in the Panhandle... But there seems to be no widespread or organized instances of rustling." Banks could recall three cases in the past two years. Cattle rustling is apparently more serious in the southern part of Florida, where some ranches have hundreds of cattle roaming across thousands of acres of unsettled rangeland an ideal situation for thieves. Whatever the number of cattle stolen or the money loss to ranchers through theft, the final bill for rustling is paid by the consumers, by the family sitting down to a steak dinner. Says Lat Turner: "Naturally, stealing means it costs us more to produce and naturally the cost is passed on to the consumer." Though rustling is a felony (punishable by a two to ten-year prison term and a fine up to $10,000), apprehension of rustlers is a definite problem for often understaffed law officers. Ranchers themselves sometimes compound the problem by inadvertently destroying evidence. One direction cattlemen are taking is by making the public aware of it. Along with this, they are attempting to acquaint lawmen with the situation and educate ranchers into becoming familiar with rules of evidence. Another way of discouraging cat lie tin 'Its is through a $500 reward offered by the apprehension of a rustler. Many counties double this amount. Flagler County otters ing ranches to his own. The stolen cows may never be missed. "We feel there are people with herds of 5,000 who never bought the first animal," says Higbie. Modern thieves will sometimes alter brands and put stolen cattle in with their own. Illustrating the seriousness of the crime, one man recently convicted of altering brands received a sentence of five years in prison. Exactly how widespread is cattle rustling? Statewide figures on the money loss to cattlemen are not available. But a few years ago, a sample group of 508 cattlemen was studied by the Cooperative Extension Service of the Florida Agricultural Extension Service. Using a "ratio estimator," they estimated the annual minimum financial loss at over $520,000. Recently, a higher figure $1.5 million last 1 thieves, another half million duo to vandalism was set by Art lligbie. And a figure of three to four million was put forth by John DuPuis. There are no statewide1 statistics on the number of cattle reported stolen. And cattlemen arc inclined to distrust even their own estimates. An explanation, in the words of Lat Turner: "When you have thousands of acres of land and thousands of cattle, it is a problem to keep track of them all. You're not always sine when a cow is stolen or not." a reward of $2500. - - All Florida Magazine ?