By KAREN OGDEN Tribune Enterprise Editor, Nov 11, 2006
Valier rancher John Peterson and his wife were recently headed out into the twilight to do some chores when they spotted her.
The healthy young cow lay dead in a stubble field, just off the road.
Stopping the truck to investigate, they found the sickening, telltale signs.
The cow's udder, genitals and rectum were cut out with stunning precision. The left side of her face was carved off, the exposed bones stripped as clean as if they'd been boiled.
Peterson, who discovered a similarly mutilated cow on his neighbor's ranch five years ago, knew he was the latest victim in one of rural Montana's greatest mysteries.
Since the 1970s Montana ranchers have found dozens of cattle carved up in similar, macabre fashion.
The first known incident was a mutilated steer reported near Sand Coulee in late August 1974. By December 1977, sheriff's deputies had investigated 67 mutilation cases in Cascade, Judith Basin, Chouteau, Teton and Pondera counties.
In each case, the cuts were made with surgical precision, often in circular shapes.
Similar cases have haunted ranchers in the Southwest since the 1970s, when a 300-page federally funded report concluded the killings were the work of natural predators.
Peterson, a lifelong rancher, says he knows a predator kill when he sees one. Grizzly bears, wolves and coyotes aren't suspects in this case, he said.
"It's the weirdest thing," he said. "A guy hates to say too much because I don't know how far you can go before they'll put you in the nuthouse."
Others theories besides predators involve pranksters, satanic cults and space aliens.
Whoever, or whatever, is responsible has left precious few clues for Pondera County Sheriff Tom Kuka.
At least not the kind of clues lawmen are used to.
Like the others, Peterson's cow was found with no blood spills or splatters, no footprints and no sign of a struggle.
Nor were there footprints in past cases when the ground was muddy or snow-covered.
"There's no reasonable or rational explanation for this," said Kuka, who is investigating the case as felony criminal mischief. Peterson's cow was worth up to $1,200.
"I'm hoping to find anything that would show how did this animal come to get there," he said.
Perhaps the most unsettling hallmark of the mutilations is that hungry predators leave the carcasses untouched.
Peterson discovered the cow Oct. 9 and the birds are just now starting to peck at it.
"We had a cow die a week after this one about a half a mile away and there's nothing left of that other cow," he said.
Those oddities — no blood, no footprints and no predators — were all part of a similar spate of mutilations in the area in 2002, when ranchers reported at least 15 killings.
In one case, a rancher west of Dupuyer found a carcass with the skin peeled off the left side of the face and nose in similar fashion to Peterson's cow. The left eyeball, rectum and genitals were cut out. Part of the left ear was cut off, but the utter was intact.
On a ranch between Fort Shaw and Cascade, a carcass was missing its left eye, one teat, its genitals and rectum.
But in this latest case at Peterson's ranch, Kuka found an intriguing clue.
A few feet south of the carcass there was an impression in the stubble field, like the cow had lain down there. But there were no footprints or drag marks between the impression and her final resting place.
It was as if the bovine had fallen from the sky — and bounced.
Could she have been pushed from an aircraft?
There are numerous farmhouses in the area, and none reported hearing low-flying aircraft.
Even Peterson, a down-to-earth sort, admits he's pondered extra-terrestrial explanations.
"You never know," he said. "I ain't gonna say they're out there. But I ain't gonna say they're not."