Bear expert opposes permits for running events in forest

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Grizzly bear expert Chris Servheen takes a dim view of the U.S. Forest Service granting special-use permits for events he says will violate commonly accepted guidelines for safe passage in bear country.

“I oppose the USFS issuing special-use permits for trail running events in grizzly and black bear habitat because by doing so the USFS is permitting activities that are known to increase the danger of human-bear conflict, human injury and even human death,” Servheen observed in recent comments filed with the Forest Service.

Specifically, Servheen, who served for years as the grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, expressed opposition to special-use permits that might be issued for the Whitefish Trail Ultra-Marathon and Foy’s to Blacktail Trails Marathon.

“There is no safe way to run in bear habitat,” Servheen observed, noting that state and federal agencies have long warned against such behavior.

He said issuing permits for the Whitefish Trail Ultra-Marathon and Foy’s to Blacktail Trails Marathon “will send the public a very conflicting message about how to recreate in bear habitat and send a bad message about the veracity of agency advice about how to recreate safely where there are bears.”

Keith Hammer of the Swan View Coalition and Brian Peck, an independent wildlife consultant, also described opposition to sanctioning the running events in bear habitat.

Servheen also alerted the Forest Service about his concerns related to permitting the Whitefish Shuttle Livery and Guiding Project. It would provide shuttle services to forest trailheads and guiding for mountain bikers and hikers on the Tally Lake Ranger District. The permit would cover activities from June 1 to October 1.

In June 2016, a grizzly bear killed mountain biker Brad Treat after Treat collided at high speed with the bear on a trail near West Glacier. Servheen was chairman of the board of review that studied the circumstances of Treat’s death.

The board of review also included Tim Manley, a grizzly bear specialist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, two employees of Flathead National Forest and a wildlife biologist with Glacier National Park.

The board concluded that the speed and relative quiet of mountain biking can lead to dangerous surprise encounters with bears. It recommended that mountain bike-specific signs be installed at maintained system trailheads on public lands in bear habitat and that educational materials be distributed through bike shops.

The board advised mountain bikers to slow down, carry bear spray, make noise, avoid riding alone and at night or dusk and dawn and to reject the notion that “it won’t happen to me.”

Servheen recommended that the Forest Service evaluate any trails that might be used by the shuttle and guide service on the Flathead National Forest to determine such things as sight distances, productivity of bear forage in the vicinity and the potential use of seasonal closures.

The Whitefish Trail Ultra-Marathon would be the first annual 50K mountain run organized by Whitefish Legacy Partners. It would be held Oct. 5, the day before events that will include a half-marathon, a 10K, a 5K and a fun run.

All events would raise funds for Whitefish Legacy Partners’ efforts to support regional trails, conservation and outdoors education.

Margosia Jadkowski, program director for Whitefish Legacy Partners, said the nonprofit defers to the Forest Service when it comes to expertise about wildlife and recreation management on public lands.

Jadkowski noted that the marathon would be run on established trails within the boundaries of Whitefish Mountain Resort, an area she said is extensively used for recreation in winter by skiers and during other seasons by mountain bikers, hikers and other users.

“We’re not talking about a backcountry setting,” she said.

The second annual Foy’s to Blacktail Trails Marathon would begin Sept. 22 at the Lakeside to Blacktail Trail trailhead and travel roads and trails to the top of Blacktail Mountain and then follow the Foy’s to Blacktail Trail to the finish line at Herron Park.

Gabriel Dillon, program coordinator for Foy’s to Blacktail Trail, said last year’s marathon went well. He said all 22 participants finished and no one was injured.

He said the Forest Service’s comment period, which ended June 19, is designed to gather varied opinions about events.

“I’m not a naturalist or a bear expert,” he said.

Foy’s to Blacktail Trail can hold the event without a Forest Service permit, but participation would have to comply with an agency maximum.

Dillon said any proceeds from the event will go back into trail maintenance and education.

“We’ll definitely be encouraging people to carry bear spray,” he said.

Janette Turk, a spokeswoman for Flathead National Forest, said Thursday the Forest Service tentatively anticipates announcing permit decisions by late next week.

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