Planned races on trails in the heart of Northwest Montana’s grizzly habitat are reigniting a debate over adventure sports like mountain biking and ultrarunning in bear country.
In June, a conservation group asked the Flathead to open a public comment period for special use permits. The races, they said, are near the heart of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, the largest grizzly population in the lower 48.
The Swan View Coalition cited safety issues for people and for bears. The US Forest Service had already issued a permit for the Whitefish Trail ultramarathon, but it opened a week-long public input period for both races earlier this month.
Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber addressed the issue at a June 25 meeting of bear managers. He read a statement from Summer Treat, the wife of Brad Treat, a Forest Service law enforcement officer mauled to death by a grizzly while mountain biking in 2016.
“His death is a perfect illustration of a time-and-chance accident,” Weber said. “Both Brad and the bear were doing the right thing, in the right time, in the right place.”
Brad’s death spurred a review of mountain biking in grizzly territory, and his name has been thrown back and forth in the resulting debate. But his wife’s statement said despite what happened, Treat would have supported these sorts of activities in the NCDE.
In her statement, Summer wrote she still runs the route on which her husband died every single day.
“This was my choice,” Weber read. “It was my therapy. It was how Brad and I chose to live our lives.”
Weber also offered his thoughts on the issue as the supervisor of Flathead National Forest, saying public land is for people and for wildlife. Both races are in highly trafficked areas, near Whitefish and Blacktail mountain resorts. Twenty two people ran the Foy’s to Blacktail race last year, and one hundred could sign up this year.
“Sadly the public discussion around these events has too often been in support of a narrowly focused, discriminatory and exclusionary agenda lacking in intellectual and philosophical integrity,” Weber said.
He added that framing running or mountain biking where grizzlies live as a safety issue doesn’t make sense. Weber said there have been five fatal bear attacks while running or mountain biking in North America over the last 30 years. During the same period, 29 people were killed by bears while hiking alone.
For Weber, outdoor recreation helps connect people to the natural world and can garner support for conservation. A chasm between user groups, he said, poses a bigger risk to preserving wildlife and public lands than biking or running ever could.
But Patty Ames, president of the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, said as both bear and human populations grow, grizzlies face more intense pressure from all around. For her, these are not isolated races, but rather part of a broad-scale threat that can fragment ecosystems.
“I don’t think the national forests are just for people,” Ames said. “They’re for… to preserve some places on earth in their natural habitat.”
Chris Servheen, former grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, offered written public comment on the issue. In his statement, he said “there is no safe way to run in bear habitat.” He says the speed and silence of mountain biking and running can lead to surprise encounters with bears.
Jake Kreilick is with the Wild West Institute, and offered his comments at the meeting.
“It would be nice if the Forest Service adopted recreational policies to limit and to govern mountain bike users who are enjoying our national forests,” he said.
“In the absence of clear standards and guidelines, many of us in the environmental community remain skeptical, to say the least, to allowing widespread mountain biking use in the grizzly-occupied backcountry.”
Weber said lots of activities in national forests are risky, and the number of overall grizzly conflicts is bound to increase in the future.
But he said those conflicts aren’t because of more irresponsible humans — it’s because of more bears in more places. The population of grizzlies in the NCDE is growing 2- 3 percent a year. The size of the land they occupy has doubled over the last decade.
Plus, there’s a bigger issue.
“These public lands are for everyone, not just for the select few, and the select few uses that those select few people happen to approve of,” Weber said.
He called for a public forum focused on how humans and wildlife interact on public land. His vision featured environmental ethicists, risk experts, land managers and citizens.
The Foy’s to Blacktail Trail Marathon is slated for Sept. 22, and the Whitefish Trail ultramarathon for Oct. 5. The Flathead National Forest is expected to issue its permit decisions by the end of next week.
As a federal appeals court is considering whether to strip endangered species act protections for Yellowstone-area grizzlies, yesterday's meeting of federal, state and grizzly bear managers avoided the major questions looming around delisting.
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee’s annual summer meeting focused mostly on education, outreach and food storage orders. Patty Ames, president of the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force in Missoula, said the meeting was remarkable for what went unsaid.
“I felt like they crafted it so they didn’t have to talk about some of the really most important, salient issues,” she said. “It was very superficial.”
Last week, Ames’ organization published statements from three esteemed conservation biologists. Their message: delisting bears should not come until separate populations of the bruins can connect across the landscape.
The Bitterroot Ecosystem, a key possible pathway for Glacier-area bears to connect with Yellowstone grizzlies, has drawn particular interest recently. This month, a grizzly was photographed at a black-bear baiting station in Idaho, within that supposedly unoccupied ecosystem.
The photo came at the same time as environmental groups filed suits in Idaho and Wyoming against the practice of using attractants such as bread, donuts or dog food to hunt black bears. Bonnie Rice of the Sierra Club says baiting could be a real threat to grizzlies connecting across the landscape.
“This is something that we feel is a very archaic, unethical practice,” she said.
Last fall, another grizzly was captured and relocated from a golf course on the Montana side of the Bitterroots. But connectivity was barely mentioned during the meeting.
The legal turmoil around Yellowstone bears has also delayed plans to delist the population of roughly 1,000 Glacier-area grizzlies. The Blackfoot Confederacy took issue with those plans in a written comment submitted at the meeting.
The Blackfeet Reservation, part of that confederacy, is in the heart of Glacier-area bears’ territory.
“We will not stand by and watch as our ancestors’ legacy pass into oblivion with the sacred grizzly bear,” the comment said.
It added the government should not delist or trophy hunt grizzlies, and must consult with tribes.