A planned ultramarathon between the town of Whitefish and its eponymous ski resort can go forward this October, to the satisfaction of organizers who argued it would not put runners or grizzly bears at risk.
“The Forest Service heard clearly there was a lot of support for the event,” Whitefish Legacy Partners Director Heidi Van Everen said on Wednesday. “Whitefish Mountain Resort is a high recreation use area year-round. That’s why we chose to have the marathon in that area. Those are hiking trails that people hike and run and bike on all summer long.”
In a decision released on Tuesday, Tally Lake Ranger Bill Mullholland said the race was “consistent with the Flathead National Forest Plan’s desired conditions, where new and existing special-use permits serve the public interest, meet national standards and complement the recreation settings and opportunities.”
The 50K (31-mile) trail run on Oct. 5 is expected to draw between 50 and 200 competitors. The permit requires race organizers to sweep the course for animal carcasses beforehand and repair any trail damage afterward.
After it was initially approved on April 9, the event drew scrutiny from the conservation group Swan View Coalition and others who warned that sending fast-moving athletes into grizzly bear habitat was likely to be dangerous for both the humans and bears. Coalition director Keith Hammer said the decision was disappointing.
“We’re not saying people can’t trail-run and ride mountain bikes on the Flathead,” Hammer wrote in an email on Tuesday. “But we don’t think the Flathead should be commercially promoting races that negate the warnings that such activities increase risk and can have grave consequences.”
Hammer cited an official post mortem investigation into the death of a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer who died after his mountain bike collided with a grizzly bear on a popular trail near Coram three years ago. The review, led by retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly recovery coordinator Chris Servheen, warned there was no safe way to run or bike in grizzly habitat.
“For the USFS to issue a permit to allow and therefor promote what all state and Federal agencies have been telling the public not to do will negate years of public education efforts,” Servheen wrote regarding the ultramarathon permit. “Issuing such permits will send the public a very conflicting message about how to recreate in bear habitat and send a bad message about the veracity of agency advice about how to recreate safely where there are bears.”
Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber responded that people engage in risky behavior all over public lands, and he was balancing that danger against the benefit of providing opportunities to enjoy outdoor recreation. He added that the race was a one-time event unlikely to have any impact on the region’s growing population of grizzly bears.
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The controversy triggered a public comment period from June 12-19. That outreach drew about 135 responses. Mulholland said 23 were opposed to the race and the rest supported it. Opponents asked for more review of potential conflict with wildlife and races, more thorough environmental analysis and interagency consultation on the possible impacts on threatened or endangered species.
Supporting reasons included economic benefits from hosting visiting racers and their spectators, the ski resort’s existing condition as a heavily used recreation area and support for Whitefish Legacy Partners’ mission in the community.
Van Everen said Whitefish Legacy Partners formed in 2003 after Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation planned logging and development on about 13,000 acres of state land near town, and local residents wanted to propose alternative ways of preserving the open space. The state is obligated to earn income off its property to pay for public education, so the organization developed a mix of trail-building, education and logging activity that would preserve community values.
“That’s why we’re glad the Forest service and state agreed to go forward,” Van Everen said. “They make the decision whether they believe the area is good for recreation — that’s not our decision. We have so much public land surrounding the community that supports recreation. It’s a huge economic driver.”
The town of Whitefish and the Whitefish Mountain Range to its north lie between the largest grizzly bear recovery area in the Lower 48 states (the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem with about 1,000 grizzlies) and two much less productive recovery zones to the west (the Cabinet-Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems, each with about 50 resident grizzlies).
Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort has to limit some summertime activities due to grizzly presence on the mountain. The grizzly has been under federal Endangered Species Act protection since 1975. Getting grizzlies to move between recovery zones has been a major goal in the effort toward delisting them from that federal management.
“We’re not saying that there will necessarily be a bear-human conflict during these particular events,” Hammer wrote. “But the long-term commercial exploitation of trail running and mountain bike racing will most certainly result in more risky behavior and more bad encounters. The Forest Supervisor has made it known he intends to fully promote recreation, so we can only assume there will be permits issued for trail running and mountain bike racing in areas other than Big Mountain and Foys to Blacktail (another controversial race in bear habitat). The Whitefish permit sets a bad precedent for what is sure to follow.”
Weber countered that the bigger question is who gets to make the decision about what people can do on private lands. He observed that people have widely different tolerances for risk, accepting boating and car-driving compared to being in bear country or flying on planes, even though the first two activities kill far more people than the latter two.
“Thrill-seekers enjoy activities like whitewater rafting and kayaking, rock climbing, hang gliding, downhill and backcountry skiing and riding challenging trails,” Weber wrote in a public statement. “The job of these experiences provides great quality of life for both locals and visitors. The economic benefits from this are expressed directly in local communities and indirectly by making this a desirable place to live. How will we, as a society, decide these questions?”