Investigators still don’t know all the answers explaining the death of a mountain biker who ran into a bear near West Glacier, but the questions go far beyond one tragedy in the woods.
Last Thursday an estimated 2,500 people paid their respects to Brad Treat at a memorial service in Kalispell’s Legends Stadium. The 38-year-old Forest Service law enforcement officer died June 29 after hitting a bear on his bicycle while pedaling a trail near Halfmoon Lake.
The incident took place on Flathead National Forest land, about three miles from the Glacier National Park border. The suspect bear has not been found. Lab tests still can’t tell if it was a grizzly or black, male or female.
There had been no indication of bear activity in the area, nor any prohibition on bike riding. Treat grew up in the region and had worked as a Forest Service law enforcement officer for the Hungry Horse Ranger District for 12 years, and also served on local search-and-rescue, swiftwater-rescue and avalanche-rescue teams.
The death of someone with such wilderness expertise highlights a growing concern for backcountry managers: How does the desire to play in the woods balance against the risks of running into wildlife?
“This is the real challenge for grizzly bears as we’re moving into the state management phase,” said Gregg Losinski, spokesman for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee.
“They aren’t just in the backcountry any more. They’re going to expand into places that are biologically suitable, which for grizzly bears is just about anywhere. But the expansion also has to be socially acceptable. It’s not what bears are going to do, but what we allow them to do.”
The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee has a precarious job: Aiding the recovery of a wild predator that won’t always cooperate with a human community that fears it.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Wayne Kasworm leads that recovery effort. One of his chief tasks is getting people to agree on how much safety they give up to coexist with bears.
Roughly 1,000 grizzlies live in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem between Glacier National Park and Missoula. Those bears are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, but their population has reached the successful tipping point where they might be delisted and turned over to state management, like black bears, mountain lions and other big game species.
“They’re wild animals, and we are not controlling them,” Kasworm said. “What we attempt to do is provide information so people can make reasoned judgments about what is safe activity or not safe activity. We’re trying to get some conversation going, to get people thinking about what is going on out there in the woods.”
People already self-limit their recreation in many ways. Boaters avoid floating rivers during spring runoff, or accept the consequences of lost gear, wrecked boats and possible death. Golfers voluntarily leave the links when a thunderstorm brings lightning over their metal clubs and spiked shoes. Snowmobilers and backcountry skiers check avalanche forecasts and weigh the risks of the day’s adventure.
“We’re trying to get folks to recognize and take on responsibility for their own safety when they walk into known grizzly bear habitat, when grizzly bear habitat is taking over more and more of Montana,” Kasworm said.
“When a bear results in a human safety issue, or it’s killing livestock repeatedly, we remove the bear. But if you’re tooling around on your mountain bike and you bump into the bear and you’re scared, that’s not necessarily a reason to remove the bear.”
On the same day as Treat’s memorial last week, grizzly bear advocates at a Missoula workshop were warning Kasworm about the dangers posed by high-speed recreation in bear habitat.
Swan View Coalition Chairman Keith Hammer declined a request to discuss bike vs. bear issues in respect to the recentness of Treat’s death and its sensitivity in the community. But he acknowledged that the larger issue has been building for years. That was reflected in his organization’s testimony to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee workshop.
“Not counting all roads and trails allows unlimited impacts to bears and spells disaster in the face of rapidly increasing, high-speed trail running and mountain biking that is resulting in deaths to both people and bears,” the coalition’s written statement to the IGBC subcommittee meeting stated.
Hammer and others told Kasworm that grizzlies needed secure habitat protected from heavy recreational use.
Two weeks before Treat died, a black bear mauled triathlete Karen Williams when she was six hours into an ultramarathon race in the Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico. The 53-year-old was in 30th place out of 50 runners, but the only one to encounter the female bear and its cubs. The sow knocked her over and started clawing and biting her head and neck. Wardens with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish found and killed the bear.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 1 bear biologist Tim Manley wrote about the incident on his personal Facebook page. His comments got included in the IGBC official transcript on secure grizzly habitat.
“There are more and more foot and bike races in mountainous areas and this is something I have been worried about happening in NW Montana,” Manley posted on June 25, “I just don’t think it is a good idea to run down trails in areas with bears or mountain lions around … especially the races that occur overnight like they had a few years ago along the Swan Divide.”
That 2010 Swan Crest 100 endurance race from Swan Lake to Columbia Falls attracted about 50 participants for the 100-mile event. Hammer and the Swan View Coalition threatened to sue the Forest Service over the event as an unanalyzed commercial event in grizzly bear habitat. The organizers nearly canceled, but instead refunded participants’ $250 entrance fees and ran it as an informal gathering.
Reached this week, Manley said a bigger conversation needs to occur on what limits the community puts on its backcountry activity.
“We’re promoting some of these recreational uses that put people more at risk in bear and (mountain) lion country,” Manley said. “There’s a major mountain bike race that goes through the Whitefish Range, along Trail Creek and Red Meadow, that’s all in prime bear country. Your reaction time is just different when you’re on a mountain bike coming around corners. Some of these events don’t make sense as a smart thing to do in bear country.”
Glacier National Park prohibits bicycling on its trails, but allows it on open roads and a small forest route near Apgar. In May, a group of bikers riding up the Going-to-the-Sun Road encountered a black bear that approached one rider as he photographed it.
Glacier Park spokeswoman Margie Steigerwald said bikes have a bigger impact on wildlife than hikers because of their faster speed. But the National Park Service mainly restricts bike use because it treats Glacier backcountry as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act, which prohibits wheeled equipment – not because of any potential wildlife or safety concern.
One variation to that is Glacier’s policy of not starting to plow the Going-to-the-Sun Road before April 1. Steigerwald said that’s to give bears arising from hibernation some time to roam and feed with minimal human interaction (although the rule is general and not specifically related to bikes).
Organizations such as the Sustainable Trails Coalition have mounted a nationwide campaign to allow bike travel in federal wilderness areas. Coalition President Ted Stroll said the risk of encountering wildlife is something best left to local land managers.
“We’re concerned with things like this – how increased human presence in wild areas could negatively affect wildlife,” Stroll said.
“You need to account for the needs of wildlife. They have primacy," Stroll said. "We think land managers should figure out ways of regulating human visitation by permits or any other means they choose.”
Stroll recalled his own experience riding in a downhill race in Anchorage, Alaska, where the trail marshal asked if he’d encountered a cow moose and calf on the course. Stroll hadn’t seen them, but riders shortly behind him did and the whole race was called off.
“You can’t have a race going on like that – it’s too dangerous to the rider,” Stroll said. “But you also can’t anticipate every contingency. You aren’t guaranteed to be safe. You have to sit down with race organizers and figure these things out beforehand.”
What about the animals? Do humans owe wildlife some space or restraint? A growing body of research shows that human activity interferes with nesting, feeding, resting and breeding.
A 2008 Journal of Wildlife Management study by Oregon researchers Leslie Naylor, Michael Wisdom and Robert Anthony found that elk are most disturbed from their feeding and resting behavior by the passage of all-terrain vehicles, followed by mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding in descending order. The study took place in 2003 and 2004 at the Starkey Experimental Forest and Range, an enclosed forest with a resident elk herd near La Grande.
In their management recommendations, the researchers noted that “particularly ATV riding and mountain biking … caused the largest reduction in feeding time and increases in travel time.” They added that “resource allocation trade-offs between management of elk and off-road recreation will become increasingly important as off-road recreation continues to increase on public lands.”