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Group questions USFS permits for long-distance trail runs in grizzly country

Posted: 9:41 AM, Jun 17, 2019
Updated: 2019-06-17 11:41:27-04
Run Wild Conservation
Members of Run Wild Missoula set off on a one-hour run near Little Park Creek. Long-distance trail running continues to grow in popularity. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

-Laura Lundquist reporting for the Missoula Current

MISSOULA – People love to run trails, but an environmental group questions whether the U.S. Forest Service should back big trail runs in grizzly bear country.

Last week, the Flathead National Forest put out to public comment  four special-use permits  for sponsored hikes and runs. The Swan View Coalition has already lodged its opposition to two of the permits because of the possibility of people running into grizzly bears.

The two permits would allow groups to sponsor marathons using trails on federal land leased out to ski areas.

An ultra-marathon sponsored by the Whitefish Legacy Partners would allow 200 runners to use 14 miles of roads and trails within the boundaries of Whitefish Mountain Resort.

The other marathon sponsored by Kalispell-based  Foys to Blacktail Trails Inc.  would allow 100 runners to use 13 miles of roads and trails around Blacktail Mountain Resort on the northwest side of Flathead Lake.

The Swan View Coalition’s Keith Hammer was disappointed earlier this year to see that the Flathead National Forest had already issued the permits without informing the public.

His organization demanded that public comment be allowed. So the Flathead National Forest pulled the permits and announced the public comment period.

“Even if they’re going to do a categorical exclusion, they still have to do scoping with the public. That’s the law,” Hammer said.

Calls to the Flathead National Forest were not immediately returned.

Hammer said if the Flathead National Forest grants the permits, it would not be following the recommendations of a  2017 Board of Review  after the death of Forest Service employee Brad Treat.

In June 2016, Treat, an experienced outdoorsman, was mountain biking with a friend in the forest east of Hungry Horse when he rounded a corner at 25 mph and slammed into a grizzly bear that didn’t hear the bikers coming. Startled, the bear mauled Treat, who died of his wounds.

The Board of Review found that Treat had regularly jogged and biked the trail and didn’t carry bear spray that day. It might not have helped him, however, because the lack of skid marks indicated he didn’t have time to stop before hitting the bear.

The board concluded that because mountain bikers ride fast and make little noise, “mountain biking is in many ways more likely to result in injury or death from bear attacks” than hiking.

The same thing applies to runners, Hammer said. Slower movements not only save people but also bears. The bear that Treat hit had never been a problem bear, but if biologists had caught it, they’d feel pressure to either transplant it or kill it.

“The problem is that you have the Forest Service, which sat on the Board of Review, yet for some reason, they want to pretend they’re not part of that. Those are their recommendations that people not run or bike fast in bear habitat,” Hammer said.

“Internally, the Flathead (NF) doesn’t seem to recognize that, on the one hand, they’re saying don’t run in grizzly bear habitat, and on the other hand, they’re trying to turn around and issue commercial permits promoting exactly what people aren’t supposed to do.”

A grizzly bear roams through the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (File Photo)

Hammer said his group isn’t trying to stop people from trail running. They do so at their own risk and federal agencies shouldn’t promote it.

He compared it to the government’s actions with cigarettes.

“It doesn’t necessarily tell people they can’t smoke, but it does put health risk warnings on every pack of cigarettes and does not allow tobacco companies to use public airwaves and public buses to advertise cigarette smoking,” Hammer said.

For the past decade, the  Whitefish Legacy Partners  – itself a conservation group that offers bear-education classes – has sponsored shorter races on state land around Whitefish that included aid-station workers carrying bear spray.

The organization decided to add an ultra-marathon to their slate of races this year after a new section of trail opened connecting the town of Whitefish to the Flathead National Forest, said development director Alan Myers-Davis.

When asked whether the ultra-marathon’s location was a wise choice, Myers-Davis said he would leave it up to biologists.

“I don’t want to get into the controversy of about whether there’s an impact to wildlife. The reason we chose Whitefish Mountain Resort is because it’s already a high-impact area with a lot of recreation use, instead of putting it out in more wilderness-like areas,” Myers-Davis said. “If the Forest Service comes back with parameters for the permit, we would follow suit.”

The Swan View Coalition supports the other two permits involving slower activities. One would allow the Journey of Wellness to offer up to 10 guided day hikes on trails in the Swan and Tally View ranger districts, while the other would permit a Whitefish shuttle service to offer guided hiking and biking trips.

Hammer said the shuttle-service operator called him saying he intended to teach his customers the dos and don’ts of hiking and biking in grizzly bear country. Hammer praised the effort, and said he hoped the Forest Service would encourage permit holders to include some grizzly bear and public land education in their events.

Contact Laura Lundquist at  lundquist@missoulacurrent.com .