Meeting Mother Nature in Montana


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Big Sky Country! I’m a native Virginian transplanted long ago to San Francisco, and hadn’t met anything quite like Montana’s Bridger Mountains. But on a recent first-time visit I was enchanted by the ease and comfort with which the disparate members of Mother Nature’s family — flora and fauna alike — coexist. Here are a few of the fellow creatures that hang around my daughter’s new home:

For starters — brown bears. This one was investigating the indoor cat, or it might have been the other way around. Having a window in between was probably a good thing.

Christine Pentecost, Bridger Mountain Photo

The local brown bears, grizzlies by proper name, can be a curious sort. But you might not want to engage them, as they weigh an average of 290 lbs (the females) to 440 for the males. Living in bear country means being very careful to protect their habitat and never leaving garbage or food available — they make their own dietary choices, which may or may not include house cats. According to the Montana Field Guide, they have “light to medium grizzling on the head and back and a light patch behind the front legs.” Plus “varying levels of grizzled hair patches.” I now know where the grizzly bear got his name.

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And then there are rabbits. Other than the Easter bunny, a very distant kin, local rabbits are not always welcome. (But you have to admit they’re cute.) They get along just fine, insulated by all that fur and layers underneath, in Montana’s sub-zero winters, dining on tree bark, twigs and needles, but once the gardens begin to flourish, all those delicate sprouts look pretty yummy. . . .

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The resident rabbit likes to settle in daily by the back door, sunning himself (or herself, as the case may be) for a while and perhaps finding something interesting falling from the bird feeder above.

Christine Pentecost, Bridger Mountain Photo

Mule deer and white tail deer are common to the neighborhood, and they like to nibble too. My daughter’s new house is the beloved old house carefully designed and built by a noted photographer (and her husband,) who generously shared images of visiting creatures.

Montana being big game country, humans and deer coexist not always on equal terms : deer are speedy, but hunters have guns. Hunting is regulated, however, and hopefully humankind is looking to preserve these particular fellow creatures.

In the Bridger Mountain area of the state, what most strikes a newcomer is the endless display of Mother Nature’s bounty, and the possibilities for human and non-human creatures to coexist while appreciating each other. The creatures may not always appreciate the human invaders — other than the welcome availability of birdseed throughout the snowy season — but up close and personal, coexistence is pure joy.

Montana court affirms aid in dying

Montana has become the third U.S. state to give terminally ill adults the right to choose aid in dying. The decision, which came from the State Supreme Court on New Year’s Eve, 2009, was handed down by the highest body for state issues and thus cannot be appealed. The other two states honoring a patient’s wish to choose aid in dying are Oregon, which has successfully maintained its Death with Dignity legislation for more than a decade, and Washington, which passed a similar law last year.

The Montana ruling came too late for one plaintiff.

Roberta King, of Missoula, the daughter of plaintiff Bob Baxter, said, “My father died without the peace and dignity he so dearly wanted for himself and others. He feared when he filed this lawsuit that he would not live long enough to benefit from it. I’m sure he would be deeply gratified that other terminally ill Montanans will have the choice and comfort that aid in dying affords them.”

The Montana case was backed by Compassion and Choices, with C&C Legal Director Kathryn Tucker serving as co-counsel to the plaintiffs/respondents. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of Compassion and Choices’ Northern California chapter.) The decision gave Tucker a major boost for her New Year’s celebrations. She was quoted on New Year’s Day as saying,

Montanans trapped in an unbearable dying process deserve, and will now have, this end-of-life choice. This is the first state high court to find protection of this choice, and makes clear that in Montana, patients are able to make this choice and physicians can provide this care without risking sanction.”

Others, including medical professionals and critically ill patients who invested long hours in seeking the new ruling, were equally gratified.

Dr. Stephen Speckart, a Missoula cancer specialist and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said, “This decision affirms that a terminal patient’s fundamental right to self-determination will guide end-of-life health decisions. I regularly treat patients dying from cancer, and many of these deaths are slow and painful. Terminal patients will no longer be forced to choose between unrelenting pain and an alert mental state as they approach the end of their lives from terminal diseases. The comfort this brings to their last days can have an immeasurable benefit.”

Missoula attorney Mark Connell, who argued the case to the Supreme Court on behalf of the plaintiff physicians and patients, described the decision as “a victory for individual rights over government control.” Connell added: “The Montana Supreme Court has now recognized that, where intensely personal and private choices regarding end-of-life care are involved, Montana law entrusts those decisions to the individuals whose lives are at stake, not the government. I know Bob Baxter would be very pleased that the court has now reaffirmed that these choices should be left to the terminally ill people in our state.”

Steve Johnson, 71, of Helena, who is terminally ill with brain cancer, hailed the decision and asked the Montana medical profession to provide patients like himself with aid in dying. “I approach the end of my life with a clear mind, and I would like to work with my doctor to minimize the pain and maximize the peacefulness in my dying. I would like my physician to be able to respect and honor my choice to die with dignity. Adults like myself should have the option, if terminally ill, to request physician aid in dying. It’s only compassionate to minimize unnecessary suffering at the end of life, and to let me make the choice about how much suffering to endure, based on my own values and beliefs,” said Johnson.

The movement had widespread support across the state.

Montana State Sen. Christine Kaufmann, Rep. Dick Barrett and twenty-nine other state legislators; the American Medical Women’s Association, the American Medical Students Association, and a coalition of Montana clinicians; the American College of Legal Medicine; the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana; the Montana Human Rights Network; the Northwest Women’s Law Center; terminal patients’ surviving family members; Montana religious leaders; and Montana’s leading constitutional law experts had urged the Court to find in favor of the terminal patient’s right to receive aid in dying from their physicians.

According to Compassion and Choices president Barbara Coombs Lee, the battle for “the right to choose a humane and compassionate death will continue. (We) encourage terminally ill patients to call 800 247-7421 if they would like information about aid in dying, or suggestions on how to open a dialogue with their physician and loved ones.”