Who Owns the Wild: Grizzlies or Humans?
The fight to balance recreation with wildlife is coming to a head
Somer Treat has run the trail where a grizzly bear killed her husband, Brad, nearly every day since his death in June 2016. Brad was mountain biking on a national-forest trail near Glacier National Park when he came around a blind corner and rode straight into a bear. Somer, 40, doesn’t blame the grizzly. With her husband going 30 feet a second, the animal just didn’t see him coming.
Somer grew up near the southern edge of Glacier, in northwestern Montana, and she and Brad lived only a couple minutes away from the site of the attack; the area has always been her home. So no matter the weather, she pulls on her bright purple Brooks shoes and hits the trail. “Running has been my therapy,” Somer says. “It’s the normal in the not normal.” Lately, she says her daily strides are taking on new meaning.
Over the last five decades, grizzly populations in the lower 48 have rebounded from near extinction. After Brad’s death, a debate began: one side argued that mountain biking where grizzlies are making a comeback leads to both more dead bears and dead people, while the other side said it’s up to the biker to shoulder the risk, and the chances of an encounter are slim. Both parties spiked Brad Treat’s name back and forth like a volleyball. Now, as more grizzlies and more recreationists roam the northern Rockies, this long-stewing tension over mountain biking in bear country is heating up. At the same time, new but related concerns are surfacing about another outdoor sport: trail running.
In Flathead National Forest—Somer’s neck of the woods—permits for foot races have drawn the same ire over risk in grizzly habitat as mountain biking. As we talk at a patio table in downtown Whitefish, Montana, Somer says that even though Brad was killed by a grizzly bear while biking, he would never have wanted access limited. He was a law-enforcement officer for the Forest Service. If a grizzly had killed someone else in the same place, he would have been one of the people investigating the death. She points to the summit of Big Mountain, looming more than 3,500 feet above the city. It’s the highest point of the Whitefish Legacy Trail Run, a race scheduled for October 5 and 6. From its birth in 2010 as a 10K run, the event has grown over the years, along with the trail system around the city. For the first time, this year it will include a 50K. The added mileage goes through some Flathead National Forest trails, meaning the Forest Service had to issue a special-use permit for the race. Somer signed up for the 50K, and unless she breaks a leg, she says, she’s running that damn race.
Across grizzly country, newly released and upcoming versions of national forest land-management plans are shifting how the Forest Service balances access and recreation. Those plans are technical documents, thousands of pages long, about how the Forest Service prioritizes uses like timber harvest, habitat standards, and wilderness areas. Due to their size and scope, forest plans only come out once every few decades and take years for forest managers to finalize. The newly released Flathead National Forest plan set the stage for permitting the Whitefish Legacy Trail Run. Near Yellowstone National Park, revisions underway on the Custer Gallatin National Forest plan are drawing outrage over the potential to classify some of the country’s premier alpine mountain-biking terrain—which also happens to be right where grizzlies roam—as wilderness, thereby prohibiting cycling in the area. Together with revisions across other national forests in grizzly country, these documents will decide the fate of some of the nation’s wildest ecosystems for the next 20-odd years.
From Texas to California to Montana, grizzlies were once a mighty population that roamed the forests, mountains, and plains. It’s an iconic species that has long inspired fear and awe in humans. But the bruins were reduced to a fraction of their historical numbers as white settlers colonized the West. In 1975, they were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Now there are only two large populations of grizzlies left in the lower 48: about 1,000 in and around Glacier National Park, and a little more than 700 around Yellowstone. (The federal government tried to delist Yellowstone bears twice, but both populations remain on the endangered species list.) Both the Yellowstone and Glacier grizzly populations have grown steadily in recent years. Around Glacier, the number of bears is increasing 2 to 3 percent annually, and the animals are sprouting up in new places—like way out east of the mountains, in the prairies of the Rocky Mountain front.
At the same time, Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks continue to set visitation records nearly every year. And the lands around the parks are burgeoning with growth, due in large part to their beauty and the accessibility of recreation. The population of Flathead County, near Glacier, grew by about 12 percent between 2000 and 2018. Gallatin County, northwest of Yellowstone, ballooned by 25 percent in the same time period, according to census data. In Montana, the outdoor industry brought in more than $7 billion last year alone.
The future of grizzlies, some experts say, will depend on how well they can get along with humans across the landscape. And biking and running? Those activities might just make the two collide.
But Flathead National Forest supervisor Chip Weber says land managers won’t get anywhere by telling people what not to do. There’s no way to separate humans from the natural world. We should focus on bigger questions, like: How can humans and grizzlies coexist? “I reject the notion that we should steer clear of sponsoring things just because there is some risk,” he says. “I think there’s a huge amount of Americans’ use and enjoyment of wildlands, national forests, parks, and state lands that comes with some level of risk, and they’re the ones who can make that choice about whether they take those risks.”
Statistically, grizzlies really aren’t all that dangerous. Yellowstone National Park’s website puts it bluntly: the odds of getting hurt by a grizzly in the park are about one in 2.7 million. Combined, grizzly and black bears have killed fewer than three people per year in the U.S. and Canada since 2010. By contrast, in the U.S. alone, 94 people died kayaking in 2017 and 44 died skiing during the 2016–17 season. It’s all about personal responsibility, Weber says. He encourages recreationists to be smart when they’re outside and choose the risks they’re willing to take carefully.
While public lands face budget cuts, oil and gas drilling, and other threats, Weber sees the debate around recreation in grizzly country as antithetical to the larger conservation movement. “Ultimately, it drives people apart who could be working together for the greater good,” he says.
Chris Servheen served as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator for 35 years. He also led the investigation into Brad Treat’s death. “Public land and wildlife-management agencies have been telling people for years the ways to be safe when you recreate in bear country,” Servheen says. “Do not run in grizzly bear habitat. There’s no safe way to run in grizzly bear habitat.”
Unless they’re protecting their young, bears usually kill or maim people when victims are engaged in fast-moving sports like running or mountain biking, he says. Being quiet in the woods—while hunting, for example—can also lead to trouble. Servheen says those behaviors can surprise the animals, causing them to act defensively and attack.
“Do not run in grizzly bear habitat. There’s no safe way to run in grizzly bear habitat.”
Many grizzly encounters never get reported. So the relationship between grizzly bear and recreationists is a hard thing to study. But Stephen Herrero, an expert on grizzly attacks, has tried anyway. In 2000, he published a study on grizzly bears and cyclists for Parks Canada. He found reports of 33 grizzly bear-biker incidents across North America, all of which were in Canada and Alaska. In 95 percent of those encounters, the bikers only caught sight of the bear within 164 feet. More than half the time, the cyclists ended up injured.
In the study, Herrero wanted to find out if there were incongruities in the rates at which bikers and hikers had bear encounters. So he posted up on a trail in Canada’s Banff National Park to count users. He found that hikers outnumbered bikers by at least three to one. But between 1997 and 1998, about three times as many cyclists as hikers had negative run-ins with grizzlies, despite their much smaller numbers overall.
Nearly two decades have passed since Herrero’s study, but there’s not much new data on bear-cyclist interactions. No centralized source tracks this stuff. But in 2017, Anchorage Daily News reported that at least 18 bikers have had run-ins with both black and grizzly bears since the new millennium. Two of those encounters, including Brad Treat’s, were fatal.
There’s no science at all on if and how running increases the likelihood of a bear encounter. But news reports give a glimpse into runner-grizzly incidents: a woman was mauled by a grizzly while running with her coworker in Alaska in 2015. A surprised family of grizzlies charged a pair of Canadian ultrarunners at close range in 2018; the two fended off the bears with rocks, trekking poles, and bear spray. And earlier this year, a dog died protecting its owner from a grizzly while they were on a run in Sitka, Alaska. The dog’s owner said it wasn’t the first time the pair had had this sort of encounter.
At its core, the issue is simple, Servheen says: runners and bikers cover a lot more ground in a lot less time than hikers, and they do it quietly. He wrote a decisive letter in opposition to the race Somer plans to run while the Forest Service was considering issuing a permit last summer. “I don’t think that the public agencies should be permitting, and thereby endorsing, those activities, counter to everything we tell the public to do,” Servheen says. He thinks that federal and state land managers need to prioritize communication and education. Part of that means sending consistent messages across the board.
Servheen says it’s not just about risk to people; all that traffic can be bad for bears, too. When a bear attacks someone, he says, officials nearly always feel pressure to trap and kill that bear. Gruesome grizzly attacks also feed public resistance to bears, meaning the more people are killed by bears, the less likely communities are to tolerate living near them as bruin populations expand.
At its core, the issue is simple, Servheen says: runners and bikers cover a lot more ground in a lot less time than hikers, and they do it quietly.
Then, he says, there are the hidden costs; you don’t have to smash into the haunches of a grizzly for the bear to have a bad day. More people using those trails can cause what he calls “avoidance behavior,” meaning spooked bears start to stay away from prime habitat. “It’s not something we can just whistle on by the graveyard and think bears are gonna be fine forever,” he says. “To have healthy bear populations, it will take continuous, careful management of the bears and their habitat.”
Keith Hammer, chair of the environmental group Swan View Coalition, has been one of the loudest voices in the crusade against forest-sponsored races in northwest Montana. But his issue isn’t recreation as a whole in grizzly country. The trouble with mountain biking and running really amps up when “the Forest Service is part of the ringleaders and the cheerleaders and the booster club for it,” he says.
“As we have more and more people in these areas with sensitive ecosystems, with threatened and endangered species, each person needs to take on the burden of having less impact, not more,” he says.
In part as a symbolic protest of the race Somer signed up for, Hammer is organizing a sort of anti-race in which participants are encouraged to “see how long you can take to hike 70 miles.” Sit in the shade and take in the beautiful scenery, he says, and “carry lots of heavy plant- and bird-ID books to help slow you down.” He calls the event the Swan Crest Crawl. There’s no date or time for the event. Crawlers can their track progress via an online chart and start and finish at will.
Back in downtown Whitefish, as tourists chirp by, Somer Treat is telling me about a run she went on the day before we spoke. It was a 20-mile loop through Glacier. She always carries bear spray when she runs in the area, and she saw a grizzly when she did that same loop last year. She says she knows it’s cheesy, but whenever she sees the animal, she still gets a tingle, something magical, a sensation to which she can’t quite put words.
“I feel lucky to have the choice to still go out and use any of the public lands we’re surrounded by,” she says. “To limit that because of something political like the grizzly bear is something I wouldn’t want to be part of. And I know Brad wouldn’t want to be part of it either.”