A similar scene played out all over the United States in the 1970s: A rancher going about his or her normal business finds a dead animal — usually a cow, but occasionally a goat, pig, or horse — in the field.
Upon inspection it appears the animal has been mysteriously mutilated. It may have an ear cut off here, an eye scooped out there, and perhaps a perfect circle or square of skin missing. Frequently, the animal’s sexual organs will be conspicuously absent. The organs appear to have been cut with a precise surgical instrument, sometimes leaving strange serrations along the margins. Usually there are no signs of struggle and no blood, footprints, or tire tracks found anywhere near the scene. In fact, sometimes it appears the animal was dropped to its final resting place on the Western range, right from out of the clear blue sky. There are no other marks on the animal and scavengers seem to avoid it.
The law is called. Sheriff’s deputies come out, take photos, scratch their heads. If the corpse is fresh enough, they may call a veterinarian to try to determine a cause of death. The examining vet is as puzzled as anyone.
Usually no cause of death can be pinpointed. Usually the ranchers report the animal had appeared perfectly healthy just a day or two before its demise. Often, unidentified flying objects have been observed in the immediate vicinity.
Word spreads. Everywhere across the West, from the Dakotas down to Texas and over into Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, and Montana, nervous ranchers scan the night skies, loaded rifles at the ready. They wait for the strange flying lights that could spell doom for their herds.
Despite their watchfulness, thousands of cattle were found dead and mutilated under mysterious conditions in the 70s.
One such flurry of mutilation cases is profiled in the excellent and very strange book, Mystery Stalks the Prairie. The book, published in 1976, details a number of mutilations and subsequent investigation undertaken by Capt. Keith Wolverton of the Cascade County, Montana, sheriff’s department. A collaborative work between Wolverton and reporter Roberta Donovan, Mystery Stalks describes, in a dispassionate, matter-of-fact tone, the twists and turns the investigation took as it meandered its way down increasingly arcane tributaries of weirdness before ultimately concluding — absolutely nothing.
The mystery remains even today.
I did some searching on newspapers.com to find more information on the Montana mutilation incidents. Although the mutilations in Cascade County began in 1974, the first news article I found appeared in the Great Falls Tribune in the summer of 1975. In it, Wolverton appeals to the public for help in solving the case, stating that 14 mutilated cattle had been found in the last year.
On Halloween 1975, a Helena Independent Record headline reads:
“If this doesn’t settle down, there could be some innocent people get hurt,” Montana Stockgrowers’ Association Director Mons Tiegen says in the article.
Clearly the gory goings-on had gotten under Tiegen’s skin. One week later, on November 6, 1975, the Chouteau, MT Acantha reports that the Stockgrowers’ Association is offering a $1000 reward for information leading to the capture of the mutilators.
Two days after that, a Tribune item describes the 17th mutilated cow investigated in Cascade County:
Deputies said the cow had been dead less than 24 hours after they reached the area but reported no physical evidence at the scene to indicate how the pasture was reached.
Deputies said they also are puzzled by the manner in which the cow was mutilated. According to officials, after the one ear was removed the 1000-pound animal was rolled completely over onto its other side so the mutilated portion of the head was lying against the ground. “It must have taken a great deal of strength to roll that carcass over,” said one deputy.
And this was just the beginning.
This is part one in a three-part series. Stay tuned for part two. For your reading pleasure in the meantime, Mystery Stalks the Prairie is available freely here.