-Laura Lundquist reporting for the Missoula Current
An ultra-marathon through the forests and grizzly bear habitat of the Whitefish Mountain Resort is approved as planned, while another race at Blacktail Mountain Resort remains in limbo.
This week, Tally Lake District Ranger Bill Mulholland signed a letter approving the permit for the Whitefish Legacy Partners’ ultra-marathon. As part of the 50-mile race, up to 200 entrants would run about 14 miles of U.S. Forest Service roads and trails within the boundaries of the Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Mulholland said the two-day project in October – one day for set-up, one for the race – did not require an environmental assessment, but the Flathead National Forest accepted public comment for a week in mid-June.
Of the 135 comments received, 23 opposed the ultra-marathon permit for two main reasons. Some people thought the Flathead National Forest hadn’t properly followed federal law regarding public input or environmental study. The forest originally issued the permit in April without any public notice. After environmental groups protested, the agency agreed to a week of public comment on the ultra-marathon and three similar projects.
All four races are outside but near the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem recovery area. As the grizzly bear population expands, bears could start frequenting the proposed courses.
Other opponents, such as the Swan View Coalition, didn’t want the U.S. Forest Service encouraging somewhat high-speed sports such as running or mountain biking in grizzly bear habitat. It’s much easier for people engaged in such fast quiet activities to startle bears that are on or near trails and that can result in the bear acting defensively. Often, when a bear injures or kills someone, biologists are forced to search for and kill the animal.
Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Coordinator Chris Servheen wrote a letter to the Flathead Forest opposing the races based upon the recommendations that he and others made after the death of Forest Service employee Brad Treat in 2016. A bear mauled Treat after he collided with the animal on his mountain bike.
“I recognize that agencies cannot tell the public they cannot run in bear habitat or tell the public they cannot mountain bike … at high speeds in bear habitat, but agencies can refuse to permit and thereby endorse such running and high-speed biking when doing so will contradict years of agency educational efforts to help the public recreate safely in bear habitat,” Servheen wrote.
However, Mulholland pointed to a previous USFWS biological assessment for the resort area that said activities were “not likely to adversely affect” grizzly bears or Canada lynx.
Commenters supporting the race said the likelihood of running into a bear was low because the resort is already a high-use area. They also encouraged the economic boost that holding such a race would add to the area.
The permit requires that the area be swept of animal carcasses that could attract bears and participants will be educated on wildlife encounters and will be asked to carry bear spray.
Keith Hammer of the Swan View Coalition said he was disappointed, but not surprised. He attended the June 25 meeting of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee where Flathead Forest Supervisor Chip Weber appeared to hint at the outcome when he said he didn’t want recreational opportunities squelched in favor of grizzly bears.
“We’re not saying that there will necessarily be a bear-human conflict during these particular events,” Hammer said in a statement. “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. The Whitefish permit sets a bad precedent for what is sure to follow.”
The Foys to Blacktail permit requested 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. It is still under consideration.
Hammer said the public comment period at least got people thinking about possible ramifications of such events. That was evident at the IGBC meeting when a majority of the commenters questioned the wisdom of allowing races in bear country.
“Risks and consequences are not created equal,” Hammer said. “If someone drowns while whitewater rafting, the government doesn’t drain the river. If someone tangles with a bear, however, too often the government kills the bear even though it was simply defending itself or its cubs.”