Mountain Bikers, Trail Runners Face Increased Bear Risk

A fatal mauling in Montana points to the dangers of high-speed travel in bear country.


On Wednesday afternoon, 38-year-old U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer Brad Treat was mountain biking with a friend near Halfmoon Lakes, just south of Glacier National Park, when he turned a curve and startled an adult grizzly bear. According to his friend, who fled the scene to get help, the surprised bear dealt Treat a fatal blow, knocking him off his bicycle.

The incident marks the seventh time a person has been killed by a grizzly bear in the Northern Rockies since 2010 and the eleventh grizzly-inflicted death in the Glacier National Park area’s history. But with more people recreating in and around national parks than ever before, and the steady recovery of the threatened lower 48 grizzly bear population (some 1,000 grizzlies live in Montana’s Northern Continental Divide ecosystem), biologists worry a spike in human fatalities isn’t far off. Especially given the growing popularity of two “dangerous” hobbies–mountain biking and trail running.

Roughly 300 miles north of Flathead National Forest where Treat was killed, on the Canadian side of the border, lies Banff National Park. The park is home to an estimated 65 grizzlies, a mere fraction of Montana’s population, though notable for run-ins between mountain bikers and bears. It’s a cool November day when I meet Steve Michel, human-wildlife conflict specialist with Parks Canada, on the shores of Lake Minnewanka. The area, shadowed by Cascade Mountain, is on the edge of one of three core grizzly areas in the park and host to large crops of buffalo berries–a key food source for bears. Over the years, a number of surprise encounters between cyclists and grizzlies have taken place here, leading the park to restrict mountain biking along Lake Minnewanka Trail in from July 10 to September 15 annually.

“Mountain biking and trail running is a new issue we’re running into now,” says Michel, surveying the now-sparse berry patches. “Both of those are increasing in popularity and they’re a real risk for people.”

Nearby, posters at the trailhead warn of grizzlies and mountain lions in the area.

“Try to put yourself into the brain of a female grizzly bear. She has all this major investment in protecting her cubs, and then you decide to go out for a run or a mountain bike ride in a wildlife corridor, maybe bringing along an off-leash dog that resembles a wolf and throwing in your headphones.”

In some situations, a bear might see a human coming from a distance, letting out warning huffs that fall on deaf ears. Other times, like in the case of Treat, fast-moving cyclists surprise bears.

“If you come barreling around the corner on a mountain bike or you’re running really fast and can’t hear what’s going on, you’ve got a much better chance of startling a species that has evolved to defend themselves when surprised. It astounds me.”

Patti Sowka with Montana’s Living with Wildlife Foundation says the increase in mountain bikers is something her organization has been concerned about for a long time, given the growth of large, organized cycling and trail running events through bear country.

Though she’s against advising people to refrain from mountain biking entirely, Sowka adds there are precautions cyclists should take. She recommends choosing trails that have minimal blind corners, with less dense vegetation, and attaching noisemakers to bikes to reduce the likelihood of taking a grizzly by surprise. In addition, bear spray should be accessible at a moment’s notice, ideally in a chest holster.

>Perhaps most importantly, she says, cyclists should adjust their speed. “I’ve been hearing of more and more incidents where people traveling downhill at a pretty good clip are actually T-boning bears, and going over the handlebars.”

“Everyone has their passion, but you need to be careful.”

Photo by Thomas

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Showing 5 comments
  • JT
    Reply

    It doesn’t a blind curve or a fast rider to have an encounter. I’ve had two. One with a black bear in Glacier park while riding side by side on a double track with another person and conversing. We came over a slight rise to find a bear just off the trail in a berry patch. The bear stood tall and sniffed, while I talked softly to it, all the while backing up. Fortunately, the bear didn’t see us as a threat and continued with it’s berry foraging. The 2nd was with a bull bison on the Centennial trail where it passes through Custer National Park. Similar situation, cruising down a slight hill on a double track and over a rise to find the bull standing on the trail. He apparently wasn’t happy with me based on raised tail and shaking head. I backed over the rise and bike hiked up a steep, rocky hill that I was fairly sure he couldn’t negotiate assuming he tried. Once away from that area, I climbed down and continued the ride without further encounters.

  • Dante Petri
    Reply

    A couple questions and comments on this.
    One, the headline isn’t backed up, at all. “Mountain Bikers, Trail Runners Face Increased Bear Risk”
    They do? Statistics please? There isn’t a single piece of hard evidence to back this up in here.
    Sub head: “A fatal mauling in Montana points to the dangers of high-speed travel in bear country.”
    Yes, it does. A plane crash points to the dangers of flying too, but hard stats show flying to be very safe compared to other forms of travel.
    Better headline: Bear maulings happen in bear country, none are less tragic than another, recent mauling highlight extra safety measure all users should take.
    Let’s see some stats before we say one travel method is more dangerous than another.
    It could well be the case, though, that biking and running are more dangerous than walking.
    I don’t think so from my own experiences. I’m not an expert, but I ride 1500-2000 miles each summer on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula backcountry trails. Both bikers and hikers have regular run in with bears on these trails, so I’m happy to stand down with a little hard evidence. Personally I feel safer on a bike.
    This article’s form of evidence is to chat with a bear biologist who talks up a hypothetical about a mountain biker or trail runner tearing down a trail (wearing headphones for good measure) and scaring the heck out of a bear, the leaves it to the reader to imagine what happens next.
    Yep, this could go terribly wrong, and I don’t want to be said trail runner or biker, but I have been (minus the head phones) more than a handful of times. It’s not an imaginary situation for me, nor many people I know.
    I make noise, but sometimes I don’t make enough. For the most part, I see almost no bears, but I know plenty see (and hear) me. They lay low, or get off the trail. I think (again, I’m no expert) conflict avoidance is their go-to.
    Still, run ins happen, and they’re scary, but they’re scary for both parties. The two brown bears I’ve come head-to-head with a large lone boar and female with cubs – I’ve had a handful more distant encounters with brown bears that were well down that trail, and dozens of encounters with black bears that just took off and ran for their lives. In the case of the 2 very close calls, both bears had the look of sheer terror in their eyes as they wheeled back and ran away. I’m sure I looked the same. In both cases, I should have made more noise, and knew the responsibility was on ME.
    Bears live in a violent world. When they see an unfamiliar animal moving through their area, they are not necessarily any more inclined to pick a fight than they are to turn and run, or hide. Avoiding the situation in the first place is the best bet, but to get some quote from one bio that it basically means an instant fight and horrible death, is taking advantage of a tragic situation to cast two popular forms of backcountry travel into an irresponsible light.
    In reality, there is an equally unscientific argument to say that when on a bike, or running, you move quicker, and pass through the danger zone, and the animal’s treat zone, faster than you would at a walking pace. I know that I have passed many bears that were hiding in brush not far off a trail. I think the bear is likely just as relieved to see me pass and the threat fade. GPS and radio tracking studies conducted by Alaska Fish and Game in the Anchorage bowl has tracked bears sleeping (or at least, not moving for a period of time) next to popular trails at peak recreation hours. Arguably, a bear encounter was just waiting to happen if a person were to mull about nearby for too long.

    The other part of this article was good: make noise – use your voice and holler, bells aren’t loud enough on their own, be weary of things like salmon streams or dense brush – and avoid them or make even more noise, and don’t wear headphones in bear country (this should need to be said like: don’t strap a raw steak or a piece of salmon to your back either…).
    Anyway, this was hype-journalism, not what I expect here on AJ.

  • Kamil
    Reply

    Grat article! Thanks!

  • jim
    Reply

    good article, if you are going so fast on a trail that you crash into an animal or human that is also on that trail you are being a bit cocky and/or foolish. not an expert here but common sense tells one to slow down a bit on blind corners etc! to each their own in regards to running/walking/riding in the backcountry. be safe.

  • Annw
    Reply

    bear spray. Very likely much better than a gun, as it works when shot up in the air to drizzle down as a mist (I only know about using on aggressively approaching dogs in the city, where its most often effective at protecting your dog while going for a regular walk). But bears’ noses are just as sensitive. Thirty feet is about where they start to do a detour. It does not work that way on you. You can stand under it. Its like smelling a spicy food.

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