Of all the possible threats to grizzly bear survival, long-distance joggers on mountain trails aren't high on the list.
But the reverse isn't true, according to Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee adviser Chris Servheen.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly bear recovery coordinator said trail runners are approaching photographers as the backcountry group most likely to get badly hurt in an animal encounter.
"I don't think that running in bear habitat is a risk to bear habitat or population levels," Servheen told the committee during its Missoula meeting on Thursday. "But some of these people are not aware of the dangers they put themselves in. This long-term running, at dawn and dusk, at night with headlamps: These are the specific things we tell people not to do in bear habitat."
While he hasn't made a survey or poll of trail running's popularity, Servheen said fellow biologists are talking more and more about encountering runners in places "where they're likely to run into something really big and covered in hair."
Runner's Edge shop owner Anders Brooker was not at the meeting, but he agreed that trail running has grown in popularity.
"It's among the fastest, if not the fastest growing segment out there," Brooker said. "Both running and races. Like with the Iron Man (triathlon), the next step is to try a 50-miler or 100-miler, and usually that means on the trails. It doesn't make more or less sense physically. It's the challenge. And people are looking for escape. They like the idea of getting out."
Brooker said he's encountered a lot of black bears while running on trails around Missoula, and last summer encountered a grizzly sow and cubs near Ovando on a run. He said common sense was a requirement in any backcountry adventure.
Committee members at the meeting were more concerned with structured races in grizzly country. In particular, they were concerned about the growing interest in competitive ultramarathons such as last year's Swan Crest 100, which sent runners 100 miles along mountain trails. Committee members cited blog posts from several runners who recounted their disorientation and punch-drunk condition as they headed into nightfall.
That July 30 race sent runners along U.S. Forest Service roads and trails along the mountains between Swan Lake and Columbia Falls. Last year, 20 out of 44 racers finished the course, after between 24 and 36 hours on the trail.
Sharon Negri, co-director of Washington's Grizzly Bear Outreach Project, said she'd seen similar problems in her state.
"And it's very true for cougars as well," she said of trail hazards. She advised committee members to add the risks of trail running to their wildlife brochures.
Servheen said he has no interest in proposing regulations or trying to restrict runners. But he observed that whenever someone gets in conflict with a grizzly, the outcome is usually bad all around.
"If someone is mauled by a grizzly bear, that increases the negative feelings people have about bears, at least among certain portions of the population," he said. "It's something people need to make good decisions about the things they do."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.