There was a day- a day not really so long ago- when a noose and the nearest cottonwood tree was all ranchers needed to deal with cattle rustlers.

To many, those were the good ol' days."We've got members who still support the idea of a capital punishment for cattle thefts," said Mike Sibbett, executive director of the Utah Cattlemen's Association.

"They're dead serious. Some of them still remember when it was a capital offense, and they're pressuring the association to go on the record in support of capital punishment" for rustling.

Utah ranchers are increasingly angry and frustrated over a cattle rustling problem that has grown from $1 million in losses in 1987 to $4 million in losses in 1988.

What is particularly alarming to cattlemen is the trend toward highly organized cattle theft rings. In the past, thieves would steal one or two cows, butcher them and put them in a Deepfreeze for personal use.

"Now we're seeing larger numbers stolen, maybe a half-dozen head at a time, and they are being liquidated for fast cash," said Sibbett. With improved beef prices, "cattle rustling has become a lucrative money business."

Many are sold to unsuspecting ranchers, often in other states, and some are sold to businesses or individuals who know full well the beef is stolen. Commonly, the brands are altered and the cattle are sold through legitimate auctions.

The rustling problem is not only a Utah problem. Other Western states with large blocks of public range land have experienced dramatic increases in reported thefts. Even thefts from private pastures are common in the Midwest.

While cattle thefts totaling several hundred head have occurred in other states, Utah's largest single theft was of 50 cows from a Milford rancher. Several Utah ranchers have lost 30 or more cows. Many, if not most, lose two or three cattle a year.

One Colorado City, Ariz., man recently convicted of rustling cattle is believed to have stolen 48 head over the course of a year by taking a few at a time, butchering some and changing the brands on others and then selling them at various southern Utah auctions.

Even two or three animals is a tremendous financial loss to Utah ranchers. If a rancher has 50 cattle, it might take 40 just to pay operating costs. And if he loses four or five to thieves, he has lost 40 or 50 percent of his income for the year.

"Cattle thefts are absolutely devastating to these ranchers," Sibbett said. "People say, `They won't miss one or two,' but that's just not the case. That could be the difference between making it or not."

"Emotions are running high and I can see why. Their livelihoods are at stake," he added.

Emotions are running so high that cattle theft was the number one topic of discussion at the recent Utah Cattlemen's Association convention. And ranchers are demanding the association take action.

Many ranchers have complained that some of Utah's brand inspectors are unqualified. But Sibbett said the brand inspectors do the best they can with the resources they have. "There just aren't enough of them to cover the territory they need to," he said.

Ranchers will take their cause to the 1989 Legislature, proposing a significant increase in the brand inspection fee that ranchers pay in return for matching funds from the Legislature. The increased revenue would be used to hire 10 more inspectors to patrol highways and auction yards for stolen cattle.

The state Brand Board and the Department of Agriculture heartily support the proposal.

"The Legislature must now face the reality that a loss of $4 million from Utah cattlemen is a loss in tax revenue to the state. It's an economic reality the state is losing big money. They will have to put a pencil to it, decide their priorities and shift funds to correct the problems."

Sibbett said the nature of Utah's cattle industry, which relies on wide-open public lands, makes thefts hard to prevent. And many of the thefts involve unbranded cattle, which makes the thefts even harder to prove.

Cattle rustling is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison, a $5,000 fine and confiscation of all equipment used in the theft. But sentences are rarely that stiff.

The Colorado City rustler was sentenced to only 12 months in jail and a $1,250 fine.

Said Sibbett, "There's no question the penalties aren't stiff enough. I fall short of calling for capital punishment. But just barely. And I think most ranchers feel the same way. It's a hideous problem that has to be brought under control."