Flathead National Forest issues permits to run into grizzly bears

Photo credit: How to survive a bear encounter (and what to do if it all goes wrong)

“Do not run. You’re acting just like prey.”

For a long time, the best available science has shown that the worst thing for grizzly bears is to mix them with people.  That has led the Forest Service to restrict access and otherwise manage human activities in grizzly bear habitat.  Now the Flathead has decided that it is more important to get people into grizzly bear habitat, and it is issuing special use permits for long-distance running races and mountain biking shuttles.

Here’s the forest supervisor’s rationale:

“There’s a broad public out there with needs to be served and not just the needs of the few,” Weber said. “We think that greater good for the greatest number will be served. That fosters connectivity with wildlands and a united group of people that can support conservation. And the best conservation for bears is served by figuring out how to have these human activities in ways that are as safe as they can be, understanding you can never make anything perfectly safe.”

Here’s the opposing argument:

“Weber has set up a straw man here, as though this debate is about ending mountain biking or trail running on public lands,” Hammer said. “What it’s about is educating the public to act responsibly if they choose to engage in those activities. It’s not about letting the public do these activities if that’s what their choice is. It’s about sending the wrong message through special-use permits for risky behavior and the government endorses it.”

“It increases risk that results in bad public attitudes toward bears and increases risk of injury or death to people and bears,” Hammer said. “That’s not conservation. People are free to ignore the advice, but they shouldn’t be getting a special-use permit from the Forest Service that allows them to make money running 200 or 300 people through bear habitat, and using that commercial promotion to imply that’s safe and appropriate activity in bear habitat when the experts, including the supervisor’s own staff, have said this is not responsible behavior.”

A key question here seems to be whether a special use permit is viewed as an “endorsement.” In any case, this is the kind of hard decision forest supervisors get paid the big bucks for.  It’s unfortunate that this one misinterprets the opposition as being about “the needs of the few” (and also about “a narrowly focused, discriminatory and exclusionary agenda lacking in intellectual and philosophical integrity”).  This is actually about his duty under the Endangered Species Act to “carry out programs for the conservation of” listed species like grizzly bears, which according to Congress are of great value “to the Nation and its people.”   With his anti-bear bias, he is starting in the wrong place to make a well-reasoned decision.

14 thoughts on “Flathead National Forest issues permits to run into grizzly bears”

  1. With grizzlies occupying less than two-percent of their historic range, and facing numerous and growing challenges from habitat changes and increasing human population, demands and encroachment, we should be erring on the side of caution and doing all we can to reduce potential encounters and conflict between grizzlies and people. I’m disappointed with the Forest Supervisor’s decision and his apparent condescending attitude towards those who care about wild grizzlies.

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  2. Let’s take your proposition that “the worst thing for grizzly bears is to mix them with people.” With that rationale Glacier National Park with its 3,000,000 visitors seems like a logical place to restrict access. Even if “slow activities” users have fewer encounters, on which to science is not as conclusive as the article claims” the sheer number is inevitably going to lead to problems. If mixing is an issue, why is the Park Service rebuilding Sperry Chalet smack dab in the middle of prime backcountry grizzly territory. Why do they allow outfitting in the Bob Marshall if mixing is the problem?

    Last time I checked at least 5 grizzlies were euthanized in the Northern Rockies after getting acclimated to human food. Maybe we should ban houses in the urban wildland interface in Montana since Grizzlies have been seen traveling several hundred miles south to the Bitterroot Valley where one tore up the city golf course in Stevensville last year. Looks like golfing could be an issue as well.

    Look at the maps for the Whitefish Legacy Partnership run. https://www.whitefishlegacy.org/event/whitefish-trail-run/ and https://www.google.com/maps/place/855+Beaver+Lake+Rd,+Whitefish,+MT+59937/@48.40481,-114.420139,15442m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x5366661909db4a1d:0x38bfa1db7d1be83d!8m2!3d48.4272633!4d-114.4384977

    These runs are not in some remote location. The ultra goes from the resort town of Whitefish past the trophy homes and though the ski runs and downhill mountain bikes trail to the top of the mountain and back down. The other trails are within a couple miles of downtown and would be considered by nearly all measures front country and definitely heavily used. Furthermore the races have been happening since 2016. If you can’t have a trail race on the trails around Whitefish, I don’t think there is a place in western Montana that you could stage a race for bikes or runners.

    The fact is if we are going to support expanding grizzly habitat and reintroductions, opposition to recreational use is not going to help your cause in the long run. People will point to what happens in the Flathead and say, “see if you let them have their bears, here the next thing you know they will be trying to lock you out of places you have recreated for years for your and the bears protection.” A certain degree of accommodation is going to be necessary. Not all grizzly habitat can be managed as wilderness. Inevitably as their territory increases the potential for conflict is going to increase. It can only be managed, not eliminated.

    If these races had been more remote, closer inspection might be warranted. Maybe all runners need to run as teams or in pairs with bear spray, since groups seem to decrease encounters. As unpopular as it might be, races could not start in the early morning or at least not enter the forest until later in the day. Like most things, management is better than bans.

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    • Well said, Lance.

      I wonder how often motorists hit bears and other wildlife on their drives to a trailhead or to their mountain lodging?

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    • Lance, I agree with your idea of “management is better than bans.” It’s interesting to me (these are old school analogies, OK?) when groups decide to toggle (off or on) versus dial (from 0 to whatever). E.g. both oil and gas drilling and wind turbines have environmental impacts. I’m thinking of some NGO policy ideas here.
      For wind turbines, the idea is to dial back on bird deaths and manage impacts better. For oil and gas, the answer is to toggle off the activity. When is the goal continuous improvement in reducing impacts and when is the goal removal, and who decides, and do we get to ask them for their rationale?

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  3. Thanks for posting this Jon.
    Can you please tell us who the opposing argument quote is attributed to and their affiliation?

    I’m still pondering what I want to say in a comment on this issue
    Thanks!

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    • I’ve got a solution, since may be that no one on OHV’s has been attacked then they should build more OHV trails and close hiking and biking trails.. (tongue in cheek).

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  4. Actually I think some research has shown that I as a hiker and XC skier have more impact on critters, due to my quiet travel mode, than motorized vehicles. Harder for them to predict where I’ll be and thus adjust their territory.

    What the hey, let’s go for more OHV’s!

    That will help with the fire concerns often expressed on this blog.
    The faster we can accelerate climate change the sooner we’ll lose our forests. Fuels reduction on a scale even the FS timber beasts can’t imagine. Then we’ll be the only things left to burn!
    (tongue in cheek and head buried in sand)

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  5. https://missoulian.com/news/local/ultramarathon-ok-d-in-whitefish-bear-habitat/article_0d834f8e-e785-52a2-9ed3-96d9aef05c14.html
    Here’s the rest of the story for one of the races, including a link to the decision document (such as it is for a categorical exclusion). Because he was required to, the district ranger determined that the permit was “consistent with the Flathead National Forest Plan’s desired conditions, where new and existing special-use permits serve the public interest, meet national standards and complement the recreation settings and opportunities.” It’s nice that someone finally thought of the (newly revised) forest plan, but this is only one of the forest plan components that this permit must be consistent with. Like this one, other plan components build in wide-open discretion to avoid having any actual constraints on management. But the fact is that this area is in Management Zone 1 for grizzly bears (probably for reasons like those mentioned by Lance), which does seek lower grizzly bear density than in the Primary Conservation Area. Maybe the forest supervisor would have been more clear if he had remembered that he had a forest plan, and mentioned that he interprets it to say they can lose more bears here (he did say that losing people wasn’t his concern).

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