Cowboys and Ranchers Stealing Bales of Hay -- Climate Change Ushers in New Kind of Crime Wave

Droughts, fires and heat waves have sent the price of hay skyrocketing -- and the temptation to swipe it.


This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

This past year, the Midwest was scorched with heat waves, parched by droughts and seared by wildfires that an old fashioned cowboy crime—hay rustling—has become a lucrative trade in today’s economy.

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With climate change warming the United States, which experienced its hottest year on record—by far—in 2012, the price of hay and other types of animal feed has skyrocketed as fire consumed grazing land and grain crops withered in thirst.

As a result, ranchers and renegade cowboys are literally stealing bales of hay from their neighbors to feed their cattle or sell to the highest bidder, reports The New York Times.

One sheriff in Colorado told The Times that hay rustling was “the economics of the times.”

But, in reality, this is an economic need driven not by complex derivatives but by extreme weather and soaring heat, some of the first sustained climate change-related disasters to measurably impact the United States.

Other countries have already received far more punishing climate change-related effects, such as floods, storms and heat waves. Currently, Australia is experiencing a historical heat wave, which prompted climatologists to add two new colors to the map to designate temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, Pakistan has been experiencing deadly floods recently, while in Ethiopia, climate change’s effect on agriculture already costs the nation $450 million annually—a high sum in one of the world’s poorest countries.

According to the environmental research group DARA, climate change caused $700 billion in economic losses in 2010. Even more disturbingly, climate change and carbon-emissions killed nearly five million people in 2010, a number that DARA expects to rise to six million deaths annually by 2030.

But back on the ranch, farmers still aren’t fully making the connections, even as thieves hotwire flatbed trucks and make off with hundreds—sometimes thousands—of dollars of hay bales in the cover of darkness.

“Maybe it’s not the crime of the century, but it affects us,” one rancher, Mr. Reifenrath told The Times.

Well, the hay rustling may be a mere needle in a … (you know), but it’s one part of much bigger heist by multinational oil companies and carbon emitters that is, in fact, shaping up to be the crime of the millennium.

Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and the author of "A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home," forthcoming from Zuccotti Park Press.