Many studies have reported temporal changes in the relative importance of density-dependence and environmental stochasticity in affecting population growth rates, but they typically assume that the predominant factor limiting growth remains constant over long periods of time. Stochastic switches in limiting factors that persist for multiple time-steps have received little attention, but most wild populations may periodically experience such switches. Here, we consider the dynamics of three populations of individually marked bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) monitored for 24–28 years. Each population experienced one or two distinct cougar (Puma concolor) predation events leading to population declines. The onset and duration of predation events were stochastic and consistent with predation by specialist individuals. A realistic Markov chain model confirms that predation by specialist cougars can cause extinction of isolated populations. We suggest that such processes may be common. In such cases, predator–prey equilibria may only occur at large geographical and temporal scales, and are unlikely with increasing habitat fragmentation.