Skinwalker Ranch is a 512-acre property tucked away in the northeast corner of Utah that, apparently, UFOs—and the men studying them—just can’t get enough of.
In the 1960s and 70s, there was a flurry of UFO sightings in the Uintah Basin. Then, in the mid 90s, stories about Skinwalker and strange goings-on at the ranch started to emerge. The stories range from cattle mutilations to UFOs.
“Skinwalker Ranch is the most scientifically studied paranormal hotspot on the planet, with the highest frequency of documented UFO sightings, bizarre cattle mutilations, electromagnetic anomalies and unexplained phenomena,” Brandon Fugal, who bought the ranch in 2016, told Newsweek.
Fugal, a real estate tycoon, initially bought the property through a shell company, wanting to keep his identity secret. “I acquired the property from billionaire Robert Bigelow for the purpose of conducting scientific research to determine if there was any validity to the extraordinary claims of paranormal activity,” he said.
“Although I acquired the ranch as a skeptic, I eventually had my own undeniable Close Encounter—a UFO sighting in broad daylight with multiple witnesses.”
Skeptics of Skinwalker Ranch are many. One of the most prominent, Robert Sheaffer, previously pointed out that the claims of paranormal activity began just before a family that owned the ranch was preparing to sell it to Bigelow—the founder of the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDSci), a privately financed research organization that disbanded in 2004.
Bigelow had bought it to investigate UFO sightings at the ranch through NIDSci, but after a decade of observations the team gave up the ghost.
The name Skinwalker comes from the Navajo tribe, describing a type of shaman that practices bad or black magic. The ranch has captured popular imagination. The HISTORY Channel is about to air its third season of a series about the paranormal activity at the ranch.
Asked whether he purchased Skinwalker Ranch to make money off the paranormal claims, Fugal said no. “I have yet to put a penny in my pocket personally regarding this endeavor,” he said. “In addition, I never intended to reveal my identity as the owner, requiring strict confidentiality agreements and liability waivers. I kept my identity as the owner secret until being persuaded to go public in connection with the The HISTORY Channel docuseries and our ongoing investigation.”
UFOs, the Pentagon and a Move to the Mainstream
The idea of UFO sightings was largely seen as quackery for decades. People who claimed to have had encounters with them were often dismissed and ridiculed.
This has slowly started to shift, however, with the release of Pentagon documents about UFO sightings that show there was an effort to keep track and record unexplained events. UFO—unidentified flying object—does not mean aliens.
The U.S government also set up the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) Task Force in 2020 as part of the Office of Naval Intelligence to standardize and collect information about UAP sightings. It said the task force would be examining unauthorized aircraft where “the observer cannot immediately identify what he or she is observing.”
“The Department of Defense established the UAPTF to improve its understanding of, and gain insight into, the nature and origins of UAPs,” it said. “The mission of the task force is to detect, analyze and catalog UAPs that could potentially pose a threat to U.S. national security.”
In June 2021, NASA chief Bill Nelson told CNN he did not think UFO sightings were a case of optical illusions. He said that while he does not think UFOs are aliens visiting Earth—”I think I would know”—the sightings reported by Navy pilots are a mystery.
“We don’t know if it’s extraterrestrial. We don’t know if it’s an enemy. We don’t know if it’s an optical phenomenon,” Nelson said. “We don’t think [it’s an optical phenomenon] because of the characteristics that those Navy jet pilots described […] And so the bottom line is, we want to know.”
Who Believes in UFOs?
Greg Eghigian, professor of history at Penn State University, studies the history of UFO sightings and claims of alien contact. “For a long time now, most people have been aware that UFOs carry in tow with them a legacy of speculations bordering on the fantastic, the incredible,” he told Newsweek. “So, when someone says they saw a UFO, it seems—to many, at least—to imply that the witness must also be buying into all those speculations, no matter how outlandish they might be. Thus, a leap in thinking, an assumption, is often made, attributing all sorts of unconventional beliefs to witnesses even if they themselves don’t share those views.”
Eghigian said scientists are trained to be skeptical about speculative theories and the reliability of human judgment. They tend to believe knowledge occurs incrementally. “By and large scientists believe that time needs to be taken to investigate claims, to not get caught up in fads and hype and to let the data speak for itself over time,” he said. As a result, scientific research into UFOs is something of a non-starter.
Academic surveys about the people who see UFO sightings have been carried out, however. From the 70s and 80s, a picture started to emerge. People who said they had seen UFOs tended to have had a higher education, were white, male and middle class—”a group that has also historically dominated UFO organizations,” Eghigian said.
“Studies conducted since around 1970 have tended to show that many of those who express a desire and willingness to believe have intersecting interests in other paranormal phenomena and/or in alternative religious experiences,” he said. “This seems to indicate an openness on their part to the unconventional. On the other side of things, skeptics have historically seen social and political dangers in embracing what they see as baseless, superstitious beliefs.
“Particularly during the Cold War, skeptics often made the argument that Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia were arresting examples of what could happen when people blindly accepted extravagant claims uncritically.”
A Return to Skinwalker Ranch
The latest season on Skinwalker Ranch sees investigators examine anomalies in the sky about a mile above the “Triangle Area.” The team invites former members of the U.S. military connected to the “Tic Tac” UAP and they simulate a phenomenon so it appears above the ranch.
Travis Taylor, the scientist involved in The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch, told Newsweek he got involved in the program through mutual connections with Fugal: “We’ve found that there is absolutely some type of strange phenomenon or phenomena taking place that generate microwaves, radio waves, gamma ray radiation, ground vibrations, UAP/UFO appearances, strange sounds, and many other things that we simply can’t explain.”
“There is not a singular explanation. It is possible that there are ‘bad human actors’ causing some of it, but there is a lot of it that the technology just doesn’t exist that could explain it. I have no current working hypothesis that can be experimentally tested. So, we think of things we can test and do that. Like the Aerosmith song says we just ‘chip away at the stone’ until we get to something.”
Asked about the skepticism most scientists would have regarding Skinwalker Ranch, Taylor said his peers can either “follow the scientific method” or “ignore a part of the world/universe around them.”
“As long as I stick to hypotheses that can be experimentally verified or falsified then there is no problem,” he said. “That is the scientific method. Any hypothesis that cannot be experimentally verified or falsified is pseudo junk science.”
Fugal said he believes the study of UFOs will one day be taken seriously. “We are witnessing a seismic shift in attitudes regarding the UFO phenomenon and research involving paranormal activity, due to the evidence being presented and government acknowledgement regarding the reality. We believe our work at Skinwalker Ranch is key to unlocking the mystery.”
Eghigian, however, is less convinced: “I think it’s hard to be anything but skeptical about the paranormal claims surrounding Skinwalker Ranch when those claims have been promoted by individuals known to be advocates for the supernatural and when the site has not been subject to sustained, critical examination by independent, academic researchers with the appropriate specialized training.”
The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch Season 3 begins on The HISTORY Channel on May 3 at 10 p.m. ET.