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Swan Valley grizzly killed: a reminder to keep wildlife natural

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She was born on a cold winter day high above the headwaters in the same landscape where she later 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 they called home. Last week this shining example of creation died a quiet, sobering death – not because she had failed, but because this 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. We experienced the absolute, pure joy of watching her at her best. Wild. Free. How do we know? Because today our hearts are broken. She is gone. 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 to the tempting smells that hung in the air near those buildings. 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 and 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? 

Grizzlies have been protected since the 1970s. We have rules, but nobody holds us accountable. 

Windfall paid the price because we didn’t. Our garbage cans weren’t secured. We were too proud to install electric fences. On the day that officials euthanized Windfall, we cried. 

We didn’t do the right thing. We should have paid attention to what that she-bear saw and what she smelled. 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 to teach that beautiful bear 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 but not about the bears. We have lost a treasure that contributed to the community and our sense of place.

Suzanne Vernon is a fifth generation Montanan and has lived in the Swan Valley for 39 years. She holds a degree from the University of Montana School of Journalism and is one of four co-founders of Seeley Lake’s weekly newspaper. From 1998 through 2011 she coordinated the Upper Swan Valley oral history project, which culminated in the book, Voices of the Swan. Vernon currently works seasonally for the Forest Service specializing in fire-related business management.

The people listed as co-signers in support of Windfall are 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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