An analysis of the fatal collision last summer between a grizzly bear and a mountain biker near Coram recommends more safety evaluation before new biking trails are built in grizzly habitat.
“Current safety messaging at trailheads and in the media is usually aimed at hikers,” the interagency board of review report stated. “However mountain biking is in many ways more likely to result in injury or death from bear attacks to people who participate in this activity.
"In addition, there are increasing numbers of mountain bikers using bear habitat and pressure to increase mountain bike access to areas where black bear and grizzly bear encounters are very likely.”
The report on the June 29 death of Brad Treat after he collided with a grizzly bear was completed on Friday. Lead author Chris Servheen said the analysis had advice for both trail managers and the people who recreate on them.
Servheen recently retired as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. He led a panel that included members from Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Forest Service and Glacier National Park.
While it was an independent review, it arrives just as mountain biking in grizzly habitat has become a hot topic in Washington.
Last week, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, proposed the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, which would allow mountain-biking recreation areas next to some of the most heavily used grizzly country in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. On Monday, the national Sustainable Trails Coalition hailed the introduction of a House bill that would allow the use of bikes and other wheeled equipment in federal wilderness areas.
“With something like mountain biking, the high speed and quiet nature of riding increases the probability of encounters with bears when you’re coming around blind curves,” Servheen said on Monday.
In the case of Treat's collision, he said, "here’s a bear that’s 20 years old, who’s lived in a high-density human area his entire life. He’s pretty skilled at staying away from trouble. We think he was just as surprised as Mr. Treat was. The two of them probably had only one or two seconds before they encountered one another.”
Treat was a Flathead National Forest law enforcement officer who regularly jogged and biked on the Green Gate Trail network between Coram and West Glacier. According to the report, he was riding ahead of a friend at about 1:30 p.m. when he rounded a corner in thick forest.
“Immediately after Mr. Treat disappeared, his companion heard the sound of Mr. Treat and his bike colliding with the bear and the bear vocalizing and making a sound ‘like it was hurt,’” the report stated. “He described what he heard as a ‘thud’ and an ‘argh.’ As his companion rode around the curve and stopped his bike, he saw the bear standing over Mr. Treat who was laying in the trail.”
FWP Wildlife Human Attack Response Team lead investigator Brian Sommers explained the details of the encounter. Sommers reported that Treat’s biking shoes were clipped to the pedals and both he and his bike flipped over the bear’s back. Sommers estimated Treat was traveling between 20 and 25 mph, and left no skid marks before impact. Treat broke both wrists and a shoulder blade on landing, and had a large bruise on his torso from hitting the handle bars. Sommers reported “his bike helmet was beside his body and it was in pieces after being bitten by the bear.”
While the report concluded the grizzly killed Treat, the bear did not act in any predatory way. It neither consumed any part of Treat’s body nor acted to cache him as it would a deer or other prey. Trail cameras and helicopter searches over the next two days failed to find any sign of the suspect bear, although several people in the vicinity reported seeing both brown- and black-colored probable grizzlies in the area.
DNA analysis of the suspect bear hair collected at the scene showed it was a male grizzly that had been trapped in Glacier National Park in 2006. The bear had no history of conflicts with people. When it was caught that year near Camas Creek, it weighed 370 pounds and appeared to be 8 to 10 years old. It was not collared, and was never recaptured.
The report includes a five-page set of recommendations and lessons to take from the incident.
“The unfortunate death of Mr. Brad Treat from a grizzly bear attack that was precipitated by a high-speed mountain bike collision between Mr. Treat and a bear necessitates increased attention to the dangers associated with mountain biking in black bear and grizzly bear habitat,” the recommendations began. “There is a long record of human-bear conflicts associated with mountain biking in bear habitat including the serious injuries and deaths suffered by bike riders.”
The Board of Review expanded upon established hiker advice to be vigilant, carry bear spray, make noise, don’t run from encounters and don’t hike alone. For mountain bikers, it produced an eight-suggestion list that focused on the different ways bikes and bears interact. Those included calls to ride slowly because bears encountered at high speed are more likely to react defensively and injure bikers.
The “make noise” suggestion was amplified by the observation that “mountain biking is a quiet and fast activity that may cause you to get much too close to a bear before either you or the bear knows it, resulting in a surprise encounter and a defensive attack by a surprised bear.”
The list warned against riding at dusk or dawn because of the reduced ability to be aware of surroundings at times when bears are most active; and to avoid thinking, “It won’t happen to me.”
“That kind of attitude is what can get you in serious trouble whether you are mountain-biking or doing any other potentially dangerous activity,” the list stated. “Be prepared and be safe. That way you can enjoy your activity and you and the bears will be safe.”
The list concluded with the reminder that humans only visit the places bears consider home: “Taking these precautions will help keep you safer and reduce the stress and disturbance to bears that live in these places where you choose to occasionally recreate.”
A second part of the recommendations addressed new trails in bear country.
“Before new trails are opened to mountain biking in bear habitat, particularly grizzly habitat, there should be careful evaluation of the safety and reasonableness of enhancing mountain bike access in these areas where bear density is high,” the recommendations stated. That included consideration of sight distances in thick vegetation, the risk of routing trails in feeding areas like huckleberry fields or avalanche chutes and consideration of seasonal closures to biking during feeding times.
“It’s an issue that needs further consideration, particularly as mountain biking becomes more of an activity,” Servheen said. “People wanting to go into places where they haven’t been before. It’s something that’s fairly new.”
Tester’s bill would create a 3,800-acre Spread Mountain Recreation Area north of Ovando at the request of mountain-biking organizations that hope to ride there. The designation grew out of negotiations between the biking groups, snowmobile clubs and horse-riding organizations seeking a compromise that would increase support for the Senate bill.
Mountain Bike Missoula executive director Ben Horan acknowledged the concern bikers need to show when traveling in bear country, including following the report’s suggestions.
“Access to backcountry recreation is part of what makes Montana such a great place to live,” Horan wrote in an email. “Mountain bikers, hunters, and trail runners need to appreciate that we are visitors in wildlife habitat and that our activities expose us to increased risk … It's important to remember that these encounters, while tragic, are incredibly rare.”
The Sustainable Trails Coalition supports a nationwide change allowing local wilderness managers to set their own rules on bike access. The House bill “puts mountain bikers on the same footing as campers, hikers, hunters and equestrians by restoring federal agency authority to set conditions on cyclists’ use of trails in wilderness,” according to the group’s press release.