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.”

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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.”

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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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