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Swan Valley grizzly bear and cubs

SWAN VALLEY—She was born on a cold winter day, wrapped and warm, high above the headwaters, in the same landscape where she later she gave birth to celebrated triplets.

She was loved by her neighbors, and many people experienced firsthand the wonder of those young siblings following mama through the forests and meadows they called home.

Last week, behind bars, this shining example of creation died a quiet, sobering death — not because she had failed, but because this gracious and now grieving community had failed her.

She was so greatly admired that we gave her a name from the mountains themselves: Windfall.

Windfall taught us about gratitude in the highest sense of the word. We experienced the absolute, pure joy of watching her at her best. Wild. Free. Gorgeous. How do we know? Because today our hearts are broken. She is gone. Forever a memory. Three youngsters are now orphans. No more pictures on Facebook of a grizzly bear sow and three cubs roaming the woods near our cabins.

But that is exactly why the officials had to kill her. She couldn’t resist coming closer and closer to the tempting smells that hung in the air near those buildings. Windfall could track a scent for miles by lifting her nose and gently testing the breeze. At first she startled us, then entertained us. Game cameras clicked. Cell phones, videos.

But those tantalizing aromas. That stinky garbage. Our chickens. Dog food. Bird seed. No bear would pass up such a buffet.

She’s going to get in trouble, we thought. She will end up dead. We listened to rumors, blamed the world, did nothing.

Windfall was a young mother just learning, and she found rewards. Steak trimmings in unsecured garbage. Spilled sunflower seeds. She must have thought, this feels good.

Life was good for everybody until she broke into that building. Who knew there were rules?

Humans. Grizzlies have been protected since the 1970s. We have rules about keeping our properties clean, but nobody holds us accountable.

Windfall paid the price because this time, we didn’t. Our bear resistant garbage cans weren’t locked. We were too proud to install electric fences so Windfall would have been wary. What were we thinking?

On the day that officials euthanized Windfall, we cried. Some of us are still crying. And those babies. We might never see a grizzly family like hers again in the Swan River country.

We didn’t do the right thing. That first time this she-bear came close to our cabins, our barns, our garbage — we should have paid attention to what she saw, what she smelled. We should have thought about what she was thinking. We should have known she would die if our eyes weren’t tracking her nose. As prideful human beings, we were thinking only about ourselves. It was easier to allow a grizzly to learn the wrong things, than it was for us to teach that beautiful sow how to do things right.

The death of Windfall has torn our hearts, not by claws, but by self-gratification. We thought about our own experience of seeing the bear, but not about the bear family and what they added to our lives. In this quiet, rural community where we still hold nature close, we have lost a treasure, an amazing spirit that fully contributed to the wholeness and community of our sense of place.

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Suzanne Vernon has lived in the Swan Valley for 39 years. This opinion is signed by a number of Swan Valley residents and landowners. For a full list of their names, visit Missoulian.com.

The following cosigners are all Swan Valley residents or landowners: George Beck, Emily Beck, Andy Carstensen, Deb Carstensen, Anne Dahl, Wendy Drasdo, Kari Gunderson, Idamarie Hunter, Kathy Kinzfogl, Kathleen Koors, Sharon Lamar, Steve Lamar, Wendy Montfort, Bill Moore, Patrick O'Herren, Brian Parks, Terry Quinn, Jenny Rohrer, Mary Shaw, Grace Siloti, Sally Thomason, Hank Trotter, Robert Tupling, Sheldon Vernon, Lindsey Wancour, Liza Ward, Jon Wittrich and Dodie Wood. 

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