POSTED: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 4:16pm

UPDATED: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - 5:52pm

Texas ranchers who have had to try to get their cattle through a rough drought have a new battle: cattle rustlers.

Seventeen head were stolen last week near Mansfield, the latest in a recent rash of cattle thefts from ranches in Johnson and Ellis counties.

"These guys are out on horseback stealing cattle just like they did 120 years ago," said H.D. Brittain, a special ranger with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association in Fort Worth.

Eight mostly black cows branded with a turkey track on their left hip and nine unbranded calves were stolen.

More than 30 head of cattle have been stolen from the same area since the end of last year, but that's only a fraction of those stolen each year across Texas.

In 2010, 7,500 head across the state were stolen -- triple the number just three years before.

A stolen cow can fetch nearly $1,000, while a bull can bring in $1,500.

"The way this economy is, we're going to see it continue to rise," said Brittain. "You get full market value for a cow, whether she's stolen or whatever."

There is a $2,500 reward for one of the thefts, and TSCRA's Operation Cow Thief will add a $1,000 reward for information leading to arrest of the cattle rustlers.

Convicted cattle rustlers can spend years in prison.

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