WILLCOX — The Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County is a pastoral world where neighbors still wave to one another and doors stay unlocked.

Renowned for its birding and marked by alfalfa farms and orchards, the valley, about 90 minutes southeast of Tucson, represents the spirit of the American West.

But this throwback to Arizona's frontier needed 21st century DNA technology to crack the county's first charge of cattle rustling in at least 40 years.

Late last month, rancher Larry Hubbard was charged with five felony and one misdemeanor counts of rustling after four of a neighbors' calves and a cow were found on his property.

Four of neighboring rancher Doug Kuhn's cattle had wandered onto Hubbard's property some time before.

Although Hubbard eventually called Kuhn to return three cows, he neglected to mention, or return, four calves that had been born in the interim, or a fourth cow that was pregnant.

When Hubbard denied the calves came from Kuhn's cattle, court-ordered DNA testing showed otherwise.

Reached by telephone, Hubbard deferred to his attorney, Perry Hicks, who wouldn't speak in detail about the case.

"We adamantly deny that there was any wrongdoing," said Hicks, who called the incident nothing more than a mix-up of cattle between neighbors.

Kuhn, 54, and the grand jury see things a bit differently.

"Stealing is stealing," Kuhn said during an interview Friday at his ranch.

Usually a nursing calf settles the dispute

The story, as Kuhn tells it, began in February when Hubbard called him to say three of his red cows were on Hubbard's ranch. The cows had Kuhn's brand, and he loaded them into a trailer.

It's common for cattle to wander across property lines, and Kuhn didn't think much of the matter until he noticed two of the cows had recently nursed.

By law, calves belong to the owner of the mother cow, Kuhn said. Kuhn asked Hubbard if there were any calves but was told there weren't.

The two cows, however, bellowed throughout the night as if they missed their calves. In the morning they'd filled with milk.

Kuhn, his suspicions raised, called state livestock inspector Cathe Shelton, who covers Cochise County, and returned to Hubbard's ranch with the two cows.

While waiting for Shelton, he unloaded the two cows into a pen, and two calves came running up to the fence. He then walked through Hubbard's property and found another cow with his brand that was pregnant, and two yearlings that looked a lot like the other calves in question.

When Shelton arrived, they let the calves into the pen, and they began to nurse.

Usually, that's enough in ranching to confirm ownership. It's known as the "99 percent rule" because, as Cochise County Assistant Attorney Cameron Udall said, "A cow will generally not let a calf that's not hers mother up."

But in this case it wasn't enough. Kuhn sought the DNA sampling, but Hubbard asked for a court order first.

In the meantime, the cattle were impounded, at Kuhn's expense, not Hubbard's. State law requires the owner to pay the impound fees because the owners are responsible for keeping track of their cattle. The impoundment would ultimately cost Kuhn more than $1,400.

The court order for DNA testing didn't come down until April and the results came back at the end of the month. All four head of cattle — two calves and two yearlings — belonged to Kuhn.

State still investigating case

The matter seemed settled. Kuhn eventually sold the cattle at auction. But he continued to push for criminal charges, writing state and county authorities several times. He wanted to know why, after the DNA testing, the state Department of Agriculture had not sought criminal charges.

Philip Blair, assistant state veterinarian, declined to comment on the case, saying it was still under investigation, despite the fact that the Cochise County Attorney's Office has already filed charges.

But Blair noted the department is down to 15 livestock inspectors and officers, compared to more than 100 officers about 15 years ago, who are responsible for 940,000 head of cattle.

Investigations can also falter because it can take months for ranchers to even notice they've lost cattle, he said, and often when theft is reported there is no evidence to support it.

Calves are the most common target because they are often not branded and can easily be carried away, literally beneath someone's arm, Blair said. "These calves, some of them don't weigh 75 or 100 pounds."

Business competitors

Kuhn is gruff and quick-witted, and his family has lived in Willcox since 1920. An avid gun collector and hunter, he kept about 130 head of cattle on his ranch until about a year ago.

He has since sold much of his land in Willcox and moved most of his cattle farther south.

In many ways the case has taken on some of the dynamics of Willcox. In recent years a number of outsiders have bought land in the small agricultural community of about 4,000 people, creating a split between those from Willcox and those from out of the area.

Hubbard is from outside the area and bought property in and around the town a few years ago.

"It's been tough farming the last 10 years," Kuhn said. "People (from out of town) have been paying big money for something you couldn't make a living on."

These days, hay is the dominant crop in Willcox, and not surprisingly both Hubbard and Kuhn are in the hay business.

"Both of these individuals are competitors in the hay business,' said Hicks, Hubbard's attorney. "They are major competitors."

Hicks said he thought that rivalry inspired Kuhn to pursue the case.

Kuhn rejected that notion.

"This has nothing to do with the hay business," he said. "Cattle rustling in the 21st century. Everybody thought that it happened 100 years ago, but it's happening now."

"Cattle rustling in the 21st century. Everybody thought that it happened 100 years ago, but it's happening now."

Doug Kuhn

Cochise County rancher

● Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at 807-7789 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com.