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Remembering Officer Treat

Brad Treat was a federal cop who patrolled 2 million acres of Montana wilderness: river rescues, drug busts, militias and timber thieves.

He was the law at the edge of the wild, returning home from each shift to his wife in their house just outside Flathead National Forest every day for many years — until he died last summer at age 38, just out of sight of his front window, alone as a bear attacked him.

News of the U.S. Forest Service officer's death spread across the world, but the cop often got lost in the headlines.

He became "man fatally attacked by grizzly bear" in USA Today. In the Guardian, he was simply a "mountain biker."

In the small community where he'd lived his whole life, his death was an earthquake. But like her neighbors, his wife said nothing to reporters who she felt were more interested in the gruesome details of his death than his life and work.

Last week, a federal report detailed exactly how a confluence of unlikely events sent Treat flying around a blind curve on a bicycle, directly into 300-some pounds of grizzly bear. And how paranoia spread through the woods as the feds searched for the animal.

Now, his wife, Somer Treat, has broken her silence. After nine months of grief, she wants the world to know what happens when an officer dies deep in the woods.

Like her husband of 16 years, Somer Treat grew up in Flathead County, she told The Washington Post. It's a place where animals far outnumber people, and rules tend to get lost in the wilderness.

"The communities have done things their way for so long, they have their own version of what is legal and what isn't," Somer said. "People think the woods, because it belongs to the government, is literally theirs."

Her husband did not. With a master's degree in criminology, she said, he joined the Forest Service not long after she married him.

"He'd do anything, and nothing was beneath him," she said. "He was rappelling out of a helicopter to pick someone off a cliff, and then he was cleaning up a campfire."

Another Forest Service officer told a story at Treat's memorial — how they once set out to evict a man living in the forest.

They arrived to find him in a rain-soaked tent, with nothing to his name but a dwindling fire, Hungry Horse News reported from the memorial. "Instead of admonishing the despondent man, Treat went and got him firewood."

The Treats ran before work every morning, past cliffs and creeks on the trails between their home and pure wilderness. Brad considered it training.

They finished a six-mile run the morning of June 29, 2016, and said goodbye. Somer drove off to work in the town of Whitefish. Before his shift, Brad strapped on a helmet and hit the same trail again.

A family friend was visiting — a man from another state who knew nothing of the woods. Brad led him into the woods for his first mountain bike ride.

That same afternoon, about half a mile from the trail, a grizzly charged out of the trees at another group of cyclists.

Like every known bear encounter in the woods that day, the incident was recorded in the Forest Service's report on Brad's death.

The grizzly got within six feet of the cyclists — so close they could see the white on its face and its teeth snap in the air.

Then, as most bears do, it backed down and disappeared.

Memories aren't always reliable in the woods, investigation chairman Chris Servheen told The Post.

"We can't say for sure," he said, but investigators don't think that was the same bear that Treat and his friend rode straight toward.

The men cycled fast — at least 20 miles an hour, according to the report. Walls of trees and bullberry shrubs rose on either side as Treat led them around a curve about 2 p.m.

Before Treat's friend caught sight of him again, he heard a noise. "A 'thud' and an 'argh'," as the report describes it. The latter sound was not human.

The report does not name the second cyclist. Somer would not either. She said he has not coped well with what he saw when he rounded the curve.

The man saw Brad lying on the ground. He'd likely flown over the handlebars and bear, both, according to the report. He'd broken both wrists and a shoulder blade upon landing.

The grizzly stood over him, fur bristling, so focused that it did not notice his friend, who would tell investigators he stared for several seconds, with nothing to fight the animal, then ran.

He stumbled through the woods, in shock. When he finally flagged down a car, Somer said, he could barely form a sentence.

But he made clear that Brad had fallen, and that was enough to scramble the entire community.

Soon, a helicopter flew over the woods, and search parties assembled.

At her office in Whitefish, Somer Treat got a call.

"I don't want to alarm you," the voice said. "But ..."

She'd lived on this land all her life and knew just where to go. She pulled over to the side of the road, across a band of trees from where her husband went down, and where hundreds had already gathered.

"Every park ranger, every Border Patrol officer, the volunteer fire department, the sheriff of Flathead County," Somer said. "These were people that had spent their life working with him."

They soon knew he was dead.

The bear was gone by the time rescuers arrived. It had left hairs inside the crushed remains of Brad's helmet, by which investigators were able to match its DNA to a catalogue of the grizzlies in Flathead.

It was an old bear, and not especially large for its species. It had weighed 370 pounds when researchers caught and released it 10 years earlier.

A search began.

Somer, the other law enforcement officers, her neighbors and generations of her family stood vigil at the tree line, waiting until the early evening, when an ATV emerged from the trees.

Then they fell to their knees and wept.

Someone covered Brad's body in a flag, Somer said. Hands fell across chests as the officer passed.

"They asked me: 'What can I do?'" Somer said. "I said I wanted his wedding ring."

The county chaplain gave it to her before the body was taken away.

Somer stayed by the road and watched the sunset.

In the woods, the feds were setting up cameras and taking reports.

Strange things were reported that night — or at least they seemed so in the panic after Treat's death.

A railroad worker saw a young bear cross the tracks, according to the report. He wondered where its mother was, but the grizzly that killed Brad was a male.

After dark, a sheriff's deputy putting up signs to close the trails reported a bear charging him. But when investigators questioned him, all he'd really seen was a rustling in the bush.

"What they were doing was expressing paranoia," said Servheen, the review board chairman.

The search went on for several days, but the bear was not seen again.

If it is, nothing will happen. The report concluded that the animal was defending itself after being struck.

"He was surprised by the bike rider," Servheen said. "And probably the bike rider was equally surprised."

"I've never thought there was anyone to blame," Somer said. "If Brad would have investigated this, he would have said it was one-in-a-million, unprecedented, never happened before."

In all his years in the forest, he'd never worked a bear attack. His death was only the seventh of its kind in the United States since 2010.

"I've had gifts dropped off from people he gave fines to," she said. "They were people he arrested. Who took trees out of the forest for years — and they missed him."

Somer does too, of course. But she doesn't wallow.

She lives alone in their house on the edge of the forest. She thinks about her husband and the land he loved, and how to honor them.

"I can virtually see the spot," she said. "I can see the tree line where this happened."

It took her a while to decide what to do. After the attack, the forest trails were closed down for about a week.

When they reopened, Somer kept running.

Brad Treat's death in a bear attack was like an earthquake in the Montana community where he'd lived his whole life. [Courtesy of Somer Treat]
U.S. Forest Service officer Brad Treat, who was killed in a grizzly bear attack last year while mountain biking. [Courtesy of Somer Treat]