Two upcoming trail runs in Flathead National Forest are under fire from a conservation group that says they'll endanger both runners and grizzly bears.
On Sept. 22, the Foy’s to Blacktail Marathon plans to send runners on a trail course from near Blacktail Mountain ski area to Herron Park west of Kalispell. Then, on Oct. 5 and 6, Whitefish Legacy Partners plans to run several races on its trail network, the longest of which is a 50-kilometer (31-mile) ultramarathon from downtown Whitefish to the top of Whitefish Mountain and back.
The U.S. Forest Service has already granted a Special Use Permit for the Whitefish ultramarathon, and is currently considering one for Foy’s to Blacktail. But Keith Hammer, chair of the Swan View Coalition, wants the agency to rescind the former and deny the latter.
“Our position is that these races should not be run with a government special-use permit, because it’s essentially a government endorsement to commercially promote risky behavior in bear habitat,” he said.
In a four-page letter sent June 11 to Flathead National Forest Rangers Chris Dowling and Bill Mulholland, Hammer predicted the races would lead to dangerous encounters between humans and grizzly bears. He noted that a woman was attacked by a black bear while running a 2016 ultramarathon in New Mexico, and that one of Flathead’s own employees, Brad Treat, was killed by a grizzly bear after colliding with it on a mountain bike in 2016.
“We don’t want to be proven right about these ultramarathons and these bike races,” Hammer said. “We’re trying to avoid having people and wildlife getting hurt or killed.”
Jimmy Grant, co-founder of trail-running nonprofit Montana Trail Crew, doubts the runners will be moving at an unsafe speed. "Generally, the longer the race, the slower the runners. It's not a high-speed form of recreation."
He made clear that all outdoor recreation requires some caution. But Grant considers these two events' risk "very minimal."
Now, the Forest Service is taking public comments on permits for the two long-distance races, as well as a guided hiking program and a trailhead shuttle service. In comments on the latter two, Hammer wrote that the hiking program’s permit raised no potential “red flags,” while the shuttle service’s permit should only be issued if they agree to distribute bear safety information to riders.
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“We would consider the comments received and if there’s anything substantive enough or substantial enough … we would definitely take those into consideration,” said Bill Mulholland, district ranger for Flathead’s Tally Lake Ranger District.
While Whitefish Legacy Partners has already been issued a permit for its ultramarathon, Mulholland noted that “the authorized officer always has the discretion, at any time, to modify, revoke or suspend” a permit.
But he also pointed out that “this is an area on the front side of the (Whitefish) ski area that already is experiencing high-intensity, high-volume public use.”
“We made that decision to do it at a recreation-heavy area, Whitefish Mountain Resort, to take those pressures off the backcountry,” said Alan Myers-Davis, program director for Whitefish Legacy Partners.
Gabe Dillon, program director for Foy’s to Blacktail Trails, acknowledged that the group’s marathon course is “a little bit further out there,” but described the run as a “chance to educate on best practices” in the forest. The registration website advises participants to carry bear spray. Hammer is concerned that the permit for neither race includes a requirement to do so.
This isn’t his first fight with backcountry recreationists. In 2010, the Swan View Coalition opposed a 100-mile ultramarathon along the crest of the Swan Mountains. In response, organizers scrapped the mandatory fees and replaced them with voluntary donations. That step removed the need for a Forest Service permit.
Both Foy's to Blacktails's Dillon and Whitefish Legacy Partners' Myers-Davis ventured that these types of events can bolster support for public lands. “Through getting out on the landscape, recreating on our local lands, our community (and) our visitors cultivate a greater appreciation for those lands and ultimately support our conservation work to a greater degree,” said Myers-Davis.
Hammer, however, is more skeptical. “It’s not conservation,” he said. “Teaching people to do risky things in bear habitat is not conservation.”
The Forest Service is taking comments on the special-use permits through Wednesday, June 19. Visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/news/flathead/news-events to view the associated documents and submit comments.