Close encounters 

Montana has a long and involved history of reported UFO sightings, unexplained crop circles and suspicious cattle mutilations. So, is the truth really out there?

John L. “Pete” Howard is Teton County’s former sheriff and current justice of the peace. He has spent much of his adult life sifting through evidence, adding it up and deciding what it means. He’s good at what he does, at least according to the people of Teton County, who have voted him into office 10 times. Howard, however, has been stumped for nearly 40 years about the meaning of a strange and disturbing series of events that swept through the county in the mid-1970s.

“It was frustrating,” Howard says, “because we thought, ‘Boy, we’re onto something big here. We’re going to get this figured out right away.’ It went on for a year and a half or more, and to this day I don’t have a clue.”

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His confusion and frustration derive from a confounding paradox: The most likely explanation he can come up with for what happened is also the most difficult explanation to prove. As far as Howard can tell, though he can’t say for certain, extraterrestrials came to Teton County in spaceships, slaughtered cattle with surgical precision, took parts of the animals’ anatomy and then vanished almost without a trace.

Montana has long been a hotbed of UFO sightings and purported extraterrestrial encounters. In 1932, Leo Dworshak, who spent his life in Montana and North Dakota, experienced one of the world’s first reported alien contacts. In 1950, a Great Falls man caught a supposed UFO on film for the first time in U.S. history. In 1967, a Malmstrom Air Force Base nuclear missile silo near the town of Roy was temporarily shut down after UFOs were spotted in the vicinity. In 1998, 1999 and 2000, crop circles were discovered near Whitefish and Kalispell.

Last year, Joan Bird, who has a doctorate in zoology from the University of Montana and lives in Helena, published Montana UFOs and Extraterrestrials, a detailed account of these and other significant sightings and encounters from around the Treasure State. For those who study UFOs and other related phenomena, the accounts Bird relates are among the world’s most important cases of alien civilizations visiting Earth.

The findings are not relegated to the past. Just in the past few months, clusters of red dots, teardrop-shaped objects, fireballs, chevrons, white flashes, triangular craft and green orbs have all been spotted in Montana and reported to the National UFO Reporting Center. Last November, for example, two “orb-like and rather large” craft were spotted flying above Rattlesnake Creek. This February, Missoulian Nick Lechner spotted six “large balls of light” moving and drifting above the South Hills. On July 4, Tommy Evans, a friend, a cousin and an uncle all witnessed “an incredibly bright, deep-orange [colored] object slowly moving” above Missoula.

While reports like these continue to come in and further fuel speculation of aliens among us, skeptics shake their heads and dismiss them out of hand. The accounts seem fuzzy, the evidence flimsy. And alternate, rational explanations often abound. But for a number of Montanans, including reputable members of the community like Judge Howard, the truth­ is out there-and they’re trying to track it down.

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