Strangeness on the ranges, part three: The puzzle persists

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Cascade County Sheriff’s Capt. Keith Wolverton stands near a mutilated bull in this 1976 news photo.  The bull’s sexual organs were removed, along with a circular area of its hide.

Parts one & two of this series can be found here and here.

Mysteriously mutilated cattle carcasses were turning up on ranches in and around Cascade County, Montana, in the mid-1970s.  The cows had injuries that indicated someone, or something, had removed various organs and body parts with surgical precision.  No tracks, or other evidence of human presence, were ever found.  Sheriff’s officers were relentless, following up leads from UFOs to bigfoot to suspected devil-worshiping cults.  But there was little agreement on who, or what, had butchered the bovines.

Some veterinarians publicly disagreed that the mutilations could be attributed to any unknown source.  Despite the fact that they had never personally investigated a mutilation and were usually unnamed in the press, these vets stated that the mutilations were nothing but the result of decomposition and the depredations of common scavengers.  Sheriff’s deputies, they said, simply were not qualified to assess such things.

From the Great Falls Tribune, Nov. 13, 1975:

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“If a qualified individual examined a dead animal he could determine with a great degree of probability what caused the death,” one veterinarian said. … He said in past years animals died or were killed and similar carcass damage resulted, but it was “chalked off to coyotes or other predators until the cult thing became the vogue.”

A January 1977 meeting between state veterinary examiners and frustrated police investigators is described as “little more than a shouting match” in a Great Falls Tribune article entitled “Fur flies over mutilations:”

(State veterinarian Dr. Beckwith) Hubbell said he and his staff have looked at 35 mutilations in the last fiscal year, and “I would say that 98 percent of those we looked at were nothing more than predations.”

“Can you prove it’s predators?” asked Cascade County sheriff John Krsul.

“No, but you can’t prove it isn’t,” Hubbell replied.

“Listen,” said Krsul.  “I ordered (Capt. Keith) Wolverton to investigate these dead cattle.  We’re interested in this and I think the ranchers are, too.”

“Are you implying these animals are being mutilated?” said Hubbell.

“I’m saying we want to find out why these cows are dying.  I think you guys are mad because you didn’t get into this investigation at the beginning.”

….Following the meeting, Hubbell maintained his position of predators.

“I didn’t learn anything new, just more of what I had been told,” he said.

Despite Hubbell’s arrogance, the meeting evidently put pressure on state livestock officials.  One month later, a headline in the Dillon Tribune-Examiner reads “State officials admit cattle mutilations are a problem.”

In the article, Dr. Hubbell appears suitably chastised, saying, “There obviously is a problem.  I don’t know what the problem is, but something should be done at the state level, including the Predator Control Board, Brands Enforcement Division, Animal Health Department, Fish and Game, and others.”

If something was indeed done by the state of Montana, I cannot say.  My research revealed only one further article about the Montana mutilations during this time period.  In March 1977, the Dillon Tribune-Examiner posted three tiny paragraphs out of Cascade County:

Mutilations Investigation

Cascade County undersheriff Glenn Osborne has pledged that his department will continue to investigate any reports received of possible cattle mutilations, despite criticism from some skeptics who have called it a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Osborne explained that until it can be determined who or what is doing this, the incidents must be considered a criminal act.

“We have a responsibility to investigate,” Osborne said.  “We are taking all incidents reported to us and we are investigating them. No matter what the outcome, we want to investigate them to a logical end — to try to determine what is causing this, no matter what it is.”

The cattle-mutilation furor may have slowed down in Montana, but it reached a nationwide zenith in 1979 and 1980, when ranchers, law enforcement, and congressmen joined forces to pressure the FBI into opening an investigation. The Bureau had so far declined to investigate the mutilations on the grounds that they had no jurisdiction on matters not occurring on federally owned land.  The FBI finally consented to check it out when several mutilations were reported on Indian reservations.

I am unable to locate the full text of the resulting FBI report, but some of the correspondence related to it can be seen on the FBI Vault archival website.  According to the book Mysteries of the Unexplained, lead investigator Kenneth M. Rommel, Jr. stated each supposed mutilation he personally investigated was “consistent with what one would expect to find with normal predation, scavenger activity, and normal decomposition of a dead animal.”  (More on the Rommel Report here.)

Cattle mutilations continue today, albeit not with the frequency experienced in the 1970s.  The phenomenon is as controversial as ever.

Probably at least some mutilations can be explained by the natural process of decomposition.  The following clip is from a NatGeo special and details a 1979 experiment performed in Arkansas.

Whatever the theories, cattle mutilation remains a modern-day mystery with few clues.  The 1976 book on the Cascade County incidents, Mystery Stalks the Prairie, offers the following summation:

(T)he men who have investigated the strange episodes related here have seen and heard too much to casually disregard it.  They believe those persons who say they have seen hairy creatures or UFOs.  In fact, some of the officers have seen UFOs themselves.

As for the cattle mutilations, the officers have observed too many strangely butchered cows to mark it all up to natural causes or predators.

There has to be an explanation for the strange and frightening incidents, and a solution to the syndrome of puzzling events.  Those in the Cascade County Sheriff’s Department have no intention of giving up before they unravel the mystery — no matter how long it takes.

They feel strongly that local sheriff’s officers will probably be the people responsible for solving the mutilation mystery, when and if it is solved.

At that time, this book may have a sequel.

Strangeness on the ranges, part two: Bigfoot, cults, and UFOs

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Part one of this series can be found here.

According to the 1976 book Mystery Stalks the Prairie, Cascade County, MT Sheriff’s Capt. Keith Wolverton initially thought he could unlock the cattle mutilation case within three weeks. But three weeks came and went, and he found himself still devoted more or less full-time to the investigation.

Wolverton was given a loose rein by Sheriff John Krsul during the course of the investigation.  As stated in Mystery Stalks the Prairie, “No idea was too weird to merit careful consideration.”  His research led him from a prison in Minnesota to an alleged bomb plot to a supposed ceremonial cult site outside Butte, Montana.  He consulted with remote viewers and veterinarians.  He and his team experimented with donated calves — later returned, unharmed, to their owners — to try to determine the effects of different drugs on the cattle.  He tried to cut pieces of cow-hide with all manner of pinking shears, pizza cutters, and other instruments to attempt to replicate the mysterious serrated marks often found on the mutilated cows.  And the mutilations continued to occur with disturbing frequency, with over 100 individual cases reported over just a nine-month period in 1975-76.

Along the way, UFO reports flooded the sheriff’s office.  UFOs of all shapes and sizes were reported, from egg-shaped to saucer-shaped to one that resembled, in the witness’ words, a “two-story hotel sitting out there in the field” that slowly lifted off and drifted away.

In one case, a helicopter-like UFO was seen flying during a storm in 40-mile-an-hour winds — an unlikely feat for any common pilot to attempt.  In another report, a UFO was seen deliberately keeping pace with an Air Force plane.  Although Cascade County is the site of Malmstrom air base (and at the time, of several missile silos), officials there publicly denied any responsibility for, or knowledge of, the UFO reports.

It was only a matter of time before bigfoot showed up to take part in the hullaballoo — although the creatures do not appear to have been directly implicated in the mutilations.  Several unknown creature (and footprint) reports came into the sheriff’s office, with witnesses typically describing red eyes and a pungent odor going along with the hairy bipeds.  Oddly, when the bigfoot reports started coming in, the UFO sightings slowed.  Were the two phenomena somehow linked?

“There was overlapping,” write co-authors Wolverton and Roberta Donovan in Mystery Stalks the Prairie, “but one type of activity seemed to decline as another started.  Was it a piece of the puzzle, or purely coincidence?  Speculation seemed futile.”

From a report in the Helena Independent Record, entitled “What’s going on in Cascade County?,” February 11, 1976:

Reports of screams in the night, pulsating airborne lights and hair-covered creatures have officials here wondering just what is going on in Cascade County — and they’re asking for help.

“With a little help from citizens, we might be able to get to the bottom of this mystery,” Sheriff’s Captain Keith Wolverton said.

Wolverton himself watched one of the hovering lights for about two hours last Thursday night, but was unable to get near it because of the terrain.

Today he was continuing his investigation into a report by two young women who said they saw three hair-covered, human-like creatures near Great Falls on Dec. 26.

Wolverton scheduled a polygraph test for one of the two women, but said it was a routine investigative step.

“We don’t think it’s a hoax by any means.  We’re still investigating.”

Several county residents have reported being awakened at night by a sound “like a man screaming in terror or pain,” Wolverton said, but when they investigated they found nothing but frightened farm animals or pets.

Wolverton is treating the whole matter cautiously and will release few details — and no names.

“We figure there are quite a few people who have stories (of similar sightings) to tell and won’t because of fear of ridicule,” Wolverton said.  “We would like to have those reports.”

He guaranteed anonymity to anyone who requests it in connection with the investigation.

(Both women later submitted to, and passed, polygraph examinations.)

What if the mutilations had a more, let’s say, earthly explanation?  In the wake of the Manson Family, cults were all the rage in the 1970s.  Wolverton, according to Mystery Stalks, had been told by a fellow law officer that “the cattle were being injected with PCP, a hallucinogenic drug.  The blood was then removed from the animal and given to the witches of (a) cult to drink, which caused them to trip out.” (Yes, the italics appear in the original text.)  The cult theory led Wolverton to Minnesota to speak with a convict imprisoned there.  The man supposedly had inside information relating not only to cattle mutilations, but also to a plot to bomb Helena, Montana; and furthermore, that a cult was planning to mutilate human beings, mostly Hollywood celebrities.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this lead turned out to be dead on arrival.

Wolverton did not discount the cult theory altogether, however.  In April 1976, he traveled south to Butte, MT to reconnoiter a suspected “devil-worshiping” cult’s ceremonial stomping grounds.  This lead also proved futile: nothing of import to the investigation was uncovered at the site.

This is part two of a three-part series.  Part three will drop shortly; in the meantime, here is a Youtube interview of both Capt. Wolverton and Sheriff Pete Howard of neighboring Teton County, Montana.

Strangeness on the ranges: A cattle mutilation timeline, part one

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:

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“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.