In the early morning light, dust from hooves creates a fog at Silvies Valley Ranch in remote eastern Oregon. Cowboys whistle and talk low to their eager herding dogs. They're moving the cattle from one vast, sage-studded range to another.
Five young purebred bulls mysteriously showed up dead on the ranch this past summer, drained of blood and with body parts precisely removed.
The ranch's vice president, Colby Marshall, drives his truck down a U.S. Forest Service road.
"Then we'll get out and take a little walk to where one of the bulls was found. And the carcass is still there," Marshall says.
Coming upon one of the dead bulls is an eerie scene. The forest is hot and still, apart from a raven's repeating caw. The bull looks like a giant, deflated plush toy. It smells. Weirdly, there are no signs of buzzards, coyotes or other scavengers. His red coat is as shiny as if he were going to the fair, but he's bloodless and his tongue and genitals have been surgically cut out.
Marshall says these young livestock were just reaching their top value as breeding bulls. The animals are worth around $6,000 each. And since these were breeding bulls, hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of future calves were lost too.
Finding these young Herefords in this remote country can sometimes take the ranch's experienced cowboys days. Ranch staff members are now required to ride in pairs and are encouraged to carry arms.
"It's rugged," Marshall says. "I mean this is the frontier. If some person, or persons, has the ability to take down a 2,000-pound range bull, you know, it's not inconceivable that they wouldn't have a lot of problems dealing with a 180-pound cowboy."
Harney County Sheriff's Deputy Dan Jenkins has been working the cattle cases and has gotten dozens of calls from all over offering tips and suggestions.
"A lot of people lean toward the aliens," Jenkins says. "One caller had told us to look for basically a depression under the carcass. 'Cause he said that the alien ships will kinda beam the cow up and do whatever they are going to do with it. Then they just drop them from a great height."
Jenkins says the cases have been tough, with little evidence and no credible leads.
On his whiteboard, he has a running list scrawled in green marker with the top theories. What's clear: It isn't bears, wolves, cougars or poisonous plants. Nor were the animals shot.
The FBI won't confirm or deny that it's looking into the multiple slaughters.
Two years ago and 200 miles south, near New Princeton, Ore., one of Andie Davies' cows was also found cut up and bloodless.
She and her husband drove concentric circles around the corpse, but they never found any tracks.
And in this dusty country, "everything you do leaves tracks," Davies says.
Back in the 1980s, one of Terry Anderson's mother cows was mysteriously killed overnight. Standing at his ranch near Pendleton, Ore., Anderson points to the exact spot where he found her on top of a mountain.
He remembers his cow lying dead, her udder removed with something razor sharp.
"And not one drop of blood anywhere," Anderson says.
He has never gotten over it.
"It's just left a really strange feeling with me since that day. You can't explain it," Anderson says. "And, you know, no one else has been able to explain it."
The Harney County Sheriff's Office continues to field calls on the killings. And Silvies Valley Ranch has put up a $25,000 reward for information that could solve the case.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In remote eastern Oregon, a serial crime is unfolding. Someone is killing purebred bulls, and they're doing it with the level of cruel precision that unnerves ranchers and law enforcement. Northwest News Network's Anna King reports. And a warning to listeners - this story includes descriptions of cattle mutilation.
ANNA KING: North of Burns, Ore., dust from hooves creates a fog in the early light. A cowboy calls his cattle dogs as they flank the herd. Silvies Valley Ranch is nearly the size of Chicago. This summer, five young bulls were killed in remote areas here.
COLBY MARSHALL: So we're driving in on a Forest Service two-track dirt road.
KING: That's Colby Marshall, vice president of the ranch. He's heading out to one of the bull carcasses. It's an eerie scene. The dead bull looks like a giant deflated plush toy. It smells. Scavengers haven't touched it. The bull's red coat is as shiny as if he were going to the county fair. But he's missing his tongue, genitals and all his blood. Marshall says the ranch's young animals were just reaching their top value as breeding bulls when they were killed. Each is worth about $6,000. Worth even more - the hundreds of thousands of dollars of future calves they won't sire. And Marshall says the ranch isn't just worried about the money. Now staff are required to ride in pairs and encouraged to carry arms.
MARSHALL: If some person or persons has the ability to take down a 2,000-pound range bull, you know, it's not inconceivable that they wouldn't have a lot of problems dealing with an 180-pound cowboy.
KING: Calls and tips from all over the country have been coming in to the Harney County Sheriff's Office. Deputy Dan Jenkins has been working the case.
DAN JENKINS: Everybody's got stories, but so far, there's very little evidence.
KING: Jenkins says it's clear the bulls weren't shot. He's also ruled out bears, wolves, cougars and poisonous plants. Other theories are even stranger.
JENKINS: There has been things where people have said they've found satanic altars or what they believed were satanic or occult-type altars, stone altars with pentagrams and different geometric symbols, candles. But it's definitely very frustrating, and it's been going on basically since the '70s.
KING: Since then, there have been reports like this from all over the country, as far away as Kansas and Texas. But these in Oregon are new. Three hours north of Silvies, outside of Pendleton, Ore., Terry Anderson has just fixed his irrigation system.
TERRY ANDERSON: Cows just rub on stuff for the heck of it. They love to scratch.
KING: Back in the 1980s, one of this rancher's cows was mysteriously killed overnight. Anderson found her dead, her udder removed with something razor sharp.
ANDERSON: And not one drop of blood anywhere.
KING: When Anderson heard of these fresh cases, he called down to Silvies to let them know they weren't the only ones. Anderson says the killing is so weird and disturbing, he's never gotten over it, even after all these years.
ANDERSON: It's just left a really strange feeling with me since that day. You can't explain it, and no one else has been able to explain it.
KING: The sheriff continues to investigate the killings, and Silvies Ranch has put up a $25,000 reward for information that could solve the case.
For NPR News, I'm Anna King outside of Pendleton, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.