The 1970s were a strange time in America. Montana, though exceptional then as it is now, was no exception.
It may be necessary to set the scene for those who don’t remember the Me Decade: pant legs flared out to dangerous and previously unthinkable widths, gas shortages put the hurt on the average driver even as the cars grew to the size of covered wagons, all while a wearied nation tried to forget its considerable woes with episodes of Dallas and Fantasy Island and the spoken word albums of William Shatner.
And yet, if you can believe it, things got much, much stranger than that.
From September of 1975 to May of 1976, five counties in North Central Montana were rocked with bizarre accounts that included reports of cattle mutilations, “hotel-sized” UFOs, giant hairy humanoids, and a veritable fleet of black helicopters. In the lore of the fringe, it is what is known as a “flap,” a ferocious but relatively brief period of paranormal or otherwise unexplained phenomena. Along with Washington D.C.’s famous summer of the saucer sightings in 1952 and Point Pleasant, West Virginia’s hallucinatory year spent in the shadow of Mothman in 1966-1967, whatever really happened in Montana during its sustained ”flap“ constitutes one of the strangest episodes in the history of America’s long, intimate dance with the just-plain weird.
Cascade County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Wolverton was understandably perplexed by what he found when he was called to a ranch on September 22. He’d seen cattle mutilations before, they’d been appearing more often over the last few months and he had been tasked, in fact, with getting to the bottom of it. But this one was different.
The udder and sex organs had been removed completely, not so odd in cases of cattle mutilation. But it was the way the body parts had been removed that struck Wolverton.
In his book Mystery Stalks the Prairie, a classic of UFO literature, Wolverton wrote that “the cut, obviously made with a very sharp instrument, had serrated edges similar to those created with pinking shears.“ Wolverton consulted a veterinary pathologist in Colorado who observed the sample and confirmed that the marks “to the skin edge resembled neither tooth marks of a predator, nor those of wire lacerations.“ The next month, a cow near Belt was discovered with its left jaw skinned, and missing its tongue and right eye. The latter had presumably been removed, not through the eye socket, but through a hole in the skull above the eye. Most perplexingly, the cuts were accompanied by burns, as if made by a laser.
Scavenging predators are to the cattle mutilation community what swamp gas and weather balloons are to the world of UFOs. And indeed, predation may explain the majority of livestock mutilations. But the absence of footprints at the site, humans or otherwise, puzzled Wolverton, and would seem to be a recurring feature of unexplained cattle mutilations.
Many more mysterious mutilations followed. A bull calf was found sans testicles “as well as the cords leading to them.“ After removing some tissue for tests, the animal was left in the field where it died. After ten days, the rancher called and asked to have someone from the Sheriff’s Department come back out to his place; it seems “the calf was found covered in a filmy white substance that stretched from the carcass to the surrounding ground like a cobweb.“ Samples of the stuff were taken and revealed to be “petroleum distillate.“
From late summer on, reports of mutilations came flooding in. During one feverish August night, the Sheriff’s department of Teton County responded to three cattle mutilations on two different ranches. Many offered perplexing details that couldn’t easily be explained by predation, such as the sex organs of a cow having been removed from an incision similar to one a veterinarian might make to perform a C-section.
Others exhibited minute puncture wounds, were apparently emptied of blood, or had limbs removed via cuts that sheared through bone but left no bone dust behind. In one case, the animal was found on top of Square Butte, which Meriwether Lewis had nicknamed “Fort Mountain“ and described as “to all appearance inaccessible.“ Nevertheless, a calf was found missing a leg at the top of the butte. Witnesses reported seeing an automobile approaching the butte five or so days earlier, but the ground around the animal was undisturbed.
Finally, Wolverton and the Cascade County Sheriff’s Department decided they needed help.
They went to the Great Falls newspapers, radio and TV stations asking for any information the public might be able to provide. One tip led Wolverton to a convict housed in a “midwest federal penitentiary“ who spun a wild tale about the mutilations being the work of a Texas cult who planned to graduate, as long as the law didn’t catch them, to mutilating humans, including some prominent Montana politicians. After the convict failed several polygraph tests, his story proved a hoax.
LOOK TO THE SKIES
The absence of footprints in so many of the scenes led many speculate what sort of vehicle—or being—could reach the cattle without leading tracks, often in very soft or recently tilled soil.
Could they have come from above?
And this is where things got really strange.
From the beginning, two different flying machines were reported, each seeming to confirm separate theories about what was going on. The first was helicopters, suggesting the work of occultists, the government, or some other sinister but relatively mundane explanation. The second was UFOs, which connotes, well, alien beings or, at the very least, something unearthly.
In just one week late in 1975, the Cascade Sheriff’s Department received reports of one cattle mutilation, 16 UFO sightings, and 21 mysterious helicopters. At this stage, some truly dramatic sightings were reported, such as “nine helicopters... reported flying together one night in the Hobson, Utica and Kolin area around Lewistown.“ Ultimately, UFO reports would be the most prevalent of the three phenomena, with a total of 127 reported.
Helicopter sightings became so prevalent that, according to Wolverton, “Air Force Officials at Malmstrom... [had] two helicopters standing by with armed teams, ready to be launched if any helicopters were reported in the vicinity of missile sites.“ Many farmers and ranchers likewise armed themselves, leading to considerable anxiety that some errant National Guard helicopter might be mistaken for something more offensive and blown out of the sky by some overzealous and well-armed citizen. This was an anxiety shared by Senator Floyd Haskell of Colorado, itself experiencing a string of mutilations, who wrote the FBI to warn them that some of his constituents were “arming themselves to protect their livestock, as well as their families and themselves, because they are frustrated... Clearly something must be done before someone gets hurt.“
But early on the 23rd of December, a woman driving to work at the Great Falls airport witnessed an “egg-shaped craft“ that she described as being “as large as a two-story building.“ Less than a month later, a Fairfield rancher saw something “hotel-size“ accompanied by three smaller lights in a field. The main object, he said, was “300 to 400 feet long and 60 feet in height, with two rows of windows, five to six feet high and two to three feet wide.“
Eventually that object and its friends disappeared over the Sun River Valley, but the rancher and his boy drove down the highway and came upon “a group of six small UFOs in a field“ which they felt were different from the original objects since the others had not been heading in this direction when they last saw them. Dozens more UFOs were reported, of varying size, luminosity, and high strangeness.
As Wolverton wrote about each successive stage of the flap, “[t]here was overlapping, but one type of activity seemed to decline as another started.“ As December, and the year of 1975 went out, Bigfoot came in.
The day after Christmas, two Great Falls girls heard their horses rearing up pawing at the ground. Going outside to investigate, they saw something “seven and a half feet tall and twice as wide as a man“ with a “dark and awful looking“ face that wasn’t at all “like a human’s.“ They shot at it, as any Montana kid would, with their .22 rifle to no discernible effect, although, as they hustled back into the house, they looked over their shoulders in time to see ”several other creatures—she thought three or four—helping the first one back into the thicket.“ When they told one of the girls’ fathers what they’d seen, he said that he had heard a noise ”like a human dying an agonizing death“ just after midnight that morning.
Footprints would follow in April, although not the five-toed footprints most associate with Bigfoot, but bizarre three-toed footprints that defied taxological logic.
On one occasion, a 16-year-old Helena boy witnessed two of the creatures, one very tall and the other shorter. The taller creature grabbed a dark object “about the size of a bale of hay“ that seemed to have something “flapping from the ends of the object which looked similar to a piece of dark plastic.“ The boy, watching from the vantage of his bedroom, saw the taller creature turn his head and stare up at his bedroom window. The boy raced downstairs to wake his father, but by the time they returned to the window, only about two minutes or so, the creatures were gone.
However, they found a large track on the property later that day, and once again, it appeared to have only three toes.
Then, as mysteriously as it began, it stopped. Not abruptly, but with a trickle. Wolverton would later tell NIDS, the National Institute of Discovery Science, who would later study this flap of weird events, that though cattle mutilations would pop up here and there, they were no longer as frequent. The same goes for UFOs and Bigfoot; though there are relatively frequent sightings of them both in our state, they have rarely, if ever, reached the feverish intensity of that year or so of concentrated strangeness since.
Sadly, Wolverton passed away in 2019 at the age of 81. While he contributed a great deal to the study of cattle mutilations and never stopped advocating for getting to the bottom of the mystery, he never lived to see it solved.
When he first volunteered to take on the cattle mutilation reports, Wolverton said, “I thought I could solve them in that time... but the time went by and I hadn’t solved anything... So far, I have just been trying to get the facts together, but I haven’t solved it yet, so I must be missing some information.“
Now, almost fifty years later, the case is still unsolved, although livestock mutilations continue across the world. France had its own puzzling series of apparent horse mutilations in 2020 (though eventually a suspect was found and arrested), the aforementioned 2021 wave of Oregon mutilations discomfited many ranchers, and Utah’s infamous “Skinwalker“ ranch has seen its share as well.
The farmers and ranchers who have found their livelihood exsanguinated and mutilated in their own fields deserve an answer.
Sadly, since a level-headed law enforcement officer like Keith Wolverton can spend most of his life looking for answers and finding only more questions, it just might be that the answers aren’t coming any time soon.
So until then, keep your eyes on the sky, and from hooded cultists, aliens, Bigfoot, government stormtroopers, black helicopters, and any other ghosts, ghoulies, or long-legged beasties, Good Lord, deliver us!