Bears and Bikers Meet in Uncharted Territory by Jim Robbins New

York Times October 8, 2019 Science Times Section

 

When Biking and Bears Don‚?Tt Mix

 

Conservationists worry that the popularity of recreational mountain

biking and e-bikes in public lands leads to unsafe conditions for

humans, as well as for bears and other wildlife.

ImageMountain biking along the Whitefish Trails in Montana.

Mountain biking along the Whitefish Trails in Montana.CreditCreditLido

Vizzutti for The New York Times

 

By Jim Robbins

 

     Oct. 7, 2019

 

HELENA, Mont. - The death of a ranger, Brad Treat, in 2016 was a

wake-up call for grizzly bear biologists.

 

Mr. Treat, an avid mountain biker, was zipping along at about 25 miles

an hour through dense forest near Glacier National Park in the middle

of a summer afternoon when he collided with a large male grizzly bear.

 

Apparently startled, the bear reacted defensively and quickly killed

him. A witness couldn‚?Tt see what happened but could hear it. ‚?oI heard

a thud and an ‚?~argh,‚?T‚?Ě the unnamed witness told investigators. Then

the bear made a noise ‚?olike it was hurt.‚?Ě The bear disappeared before

emergency responders arrived.

 

Dr. Christopher Servheen, who led the committee that investigated Mr.

Treat‚?Ts death, said the accident prompted him to speak out publicly

against recreational sports in the areas where grizzlies live.

 

This past summer, he tried to stop two ultramarathons in the Flathead

National Forest, but the Forest Service approved the contests anyway.

One was held this past weekend, at a time when bears are particularly

active in foraging for food before their hibernating season begins

later this year.

 

‚?oWe tell people not to run in grizzly bear habitat, to make noise and

to be aware of their surroundings,‚?Ě said Dr. Servheen, who has retired

from his post as coordinator for the grizzly bear recovery program of

the Fish and Wildlife Service. ‚?oAgencies are permitting the very

activities we are telling people not to do.‚?Ě

 

Vast tracts of public land in the West have become favorite haunts of

a growing number of mountain bikers, exploring wild areas for

recreation. The Trump administration recently allowed e-bikes, or

electric bikes, to be used on some trails under the jurisdiction of

the Interior Department where bicycles are allowed.

 

The increasing popularity of trail biking has brought to the fore some

of the inherent conflicts in the uses of public land - natural regiions

or playgrounds. And while the growth of tourism may help local

businesses, the forays into deeper parts of the forests by more and

more people are encroaching on wildlife.

 

Mechanized mountain bikes and e-bikes, especially at higher speeds,

are incompatible with hiking, hunting, and bird and wildlife watching,

some argue. Safety is also a concern. Some mountain bikers revel at

bombing down trails at 20 or 30 miles per hour on single-track trails

that hikers also frequent.

 

And biologists like Dr. Servheen who have spent decades studying

grizzlies offer reminders about protecting the bears and other

wildlife that unwittingly share their territory with more people and

more mechanized vehicles.

 

In its report on Mr. Treat‚?Ts fatal accident, the interagency committee

concluded: ‚?oThe bear apparently had no time to move to avoid the

collision. At a speed of 20-25 miles per hour, there were only

one-to-two seconds between rounding the curve, the victim seeing the

bear in the trail and impacting the bear.‚?Ě

 

Dr. Stephen Herrero, a professor emeritus of ecology at the University

of Calgary, spent much of his career studying grizzlies, and is the

author of ‚?oBear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance.‚?Ě An avid mountain

bike rider, he shares Dr. Servheen‚?Ts concerns.

ImageBrad Treat, a law enforcement officer with the United States

Forest Service, who was killed by a bear.

Brad Treat, a law enforcement officer with the United States Forest

Service, who was killed by a bear.CreditU.S. Forest Service via

Associated Press

 

‚?oBears respond to surprises usually by fleeing, but sometimes by

attacking whatever it is that is surprising them,‚?Ě he said. ‚?oEvents

like runners and bike riders and anything else that suddenly thrusts a

disturbance or surprise into their environment, they sometimes respond

by attacking.

 

‚?oI try to avoid mountain biking in any area that is grizzly bear

habitat,‚?Ě Dr. Herrero said. ‚?oThere are plenty of areas that aren‚?Tt.‚?Ě

 

Bikers tend to play down the risks. Rebecca Briber, executive director

of the Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, said she always carries bear

spray with her on rides. ‚?oWe‚?Tre always aware we are recreating in bear

country,‚?Ě she said. ‚?oMountain bike-grizzly bear interactions are rare.

It‚?Ts more common for hikers to be attacked.‚?Ě

 

Other concerns include whether the increase in biking in natural areas

could do more to displace grizzlies and other wildlife than hiking,

because bikes cover so much more ground, Dr. Servheen said.

 

‚?oThe impacts are mounting because there are more and more mountain

bikers and there is more pressure to go into these places with faster

bikes and electric mechanized bikes,‚?Ě he said. ‚?oThe technology has

exceeded our ability to manage it for the benefit of animals.‚?Ě

 

Or to understand it. Some experts are raising questions about how

fast-moving bikes startle not just bears, but elk, deer and other

species, and disrupt their lives.

 

Dr. Servheen also believes that the sensational news of a grizzly bear

killing a bike rider works against the bear from a public relations

standpoint. ‚?oThe response from many people to these kinds of attacks

is that grizzly bears are dangerous and their habitat is a dangerous

place,‚?Ě he said. ‚?oIt‚?Ts a cost the bears have to pay in terms of public

support and the willingness to have grizzly bears around.‚?Ě

 

Because the popularity of biking in these areas has grown rapidly,

there is little research on its effects on wildlife. But there is a

growing body of evidence that outdoor recreation of all kinds has

serious consequences for wildlife.

 

‚?oOver all we found a moderate to strong effect of recreation on

wildlife across the board,‚?Ě said Courtney Larson, who published a

literature review of 274 studies in 2016 for her Ph.D. at Colorado

State University and has just completed a meta-analysis on the effects

of recreation.

 

The singular influence that mountain biking might have on the

surrounding environment is not known, she said. ‚?oIt‚?Ts a little

difficult to tease out on its own because most of the time, mountain

bikes use occurs on multiple use trails with hiking, mountain biking,

dogs and horseback riders on the same trails,‚?Ě Dr. Larson said.

 

But the effect of humans touring through wildlife habitats should be

taken seriously, she said. ‚?oWe can‚?Tt make an assumption that

recreation is a benign use of conserved lands,‚?Ě she added.

 

Wildlife need to feel secure and they can be stressed by the presence

of people. Startling elk, deer or any other animal causes them to

flee, to use up energy and avoid areas where they are surprised but

that they might need for feeding.

 

Though no studies have been done about the effect of mountain bikes

specifically on grizzlies, Dr. Servheen says other research and many

thousands of hours of field observations by biologists show how much

bears are aware of the presence of people.

 

A bear‚?Ts ‚?odistribution can be dramatically affected by human use of

the landscape,‚?Ě said Dr. Servheen, especially mountain bikes because

they cover so much territory. ‚?oBears may change their home range, they

may change their movement pattern, they may avoid certain areas. They

may become nocturnal, or females with cubs might avoid those areas.‚?Ě

ImageDr. Chris Servheen cautions against allowing deeper exploration

of wilderness trails where grizzly bears live.

Dr. Chris Servheen cautions against allowing deeper exploration of

wilderness trails where grizzly bears live. CreditLido Vizzutti for

The New York Times

 

A study last year found that elk move in response to people, more from

bikes than hikers. Recent studies have shown that when a mountain bike

appeared, elk fled 1,500 meters, almost as much as the 2,000 meters

they ran to escape from an all-terrain vehicle. Hikers, on the other

hand, caused cow elk to move only 750 meters.

 

Enough pressure from people may interrupt an elk‚?Ts feeding habits and

have long-term implications for a herd. ‚?oIf a female doesn‚?Tt put on

enough body fat, she might not be able to conceive the next year,‚?Ě

said Michael Wisdom, a researcher with the Pacific Northwest Research

Station, part of the Forest Service, and an author of the study. ‚?oAn

increase in time running reduces time foraging.‚?Ě

 

In a 2013 study on forest land near Vail, Colo., researchers blamed

human tourists and recreation for the smaller herd counts, down to

several dozen head of elk from 1,000 in years past. One study showed

that if a cow elk was disturbed 10 times during calving, no calves

would survive.

 

To complicate matters, advanced technologies for mountain biking

contribute to deeper exploration of natural areas. Mountain bikes with

snow tires, for example, expand the season of riding to winter, when

wildlife are most vulnerable.

 

Solutions include better management of trails used by mountain bikes,

as well as restricting use on some trails, lowering any speed limits

and permitting bike riders only on dirt roads.

 

One solution ‚?ois careful planning of the trail corridor and the

design,‚?Ě said David Wiens, executive director of the International

Mountain Bicycling Association in Gunnison, Colo. ‚?oThat‚?Ts where the

agencies get involved and the wildlife specialists, who can come up

with the proper location of the trail based on their expertise. In

certain cases, there are seasonal closures for wildlife.‚?Ě

 

Some mountain biking groups, though, continue to fight for access to

excluded wilderness areas. A bill titled the Human-Powered Travel in

Wilderness Areas Act, introduced earlier this year by Senator Mike

Lee, Republican of Utah, would allow local managers to decide whether

mountain bikes are appropriate in designated wilderness.

 

‚?oWhat should keep people from doing it,‚?Ě Dr. Servheen said, ‚?ois common

sense and the belief that grizzly bears have a reason to be here and I

have lots of other places to recreate.‚?Ě

 

‚?oI am not against mountain biking,‚?Ě he said. ‚?oBut we need to

understand grizzlies don‚?Tt have any other place to go. It‚?Ts their

living room.‚?Ě

Earlier coverage

An Alaskan Village Where Grizzlies Roam and Canada Rules (if Anyone Does)

July 2, 2016

In a Transylvania Town, Bears and Humans Collide at the Dumpster

Nov. 24, 2018

It‚?Ts One of North America‚?Ts Quietest Places. Along Came a Bear.

Oct. 16, 2017

National Parks Struggle With a Mounting Crisis: Too Many Visitors

Sept. 27, 2017

Correction: Oct. 8, 2019

 

An earlier version of this article misstated the scope of a decision

by the Trump administration to allow electric bikes on trails on

federal lands. The e-bikes are permitted in national parks and other

lands under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department, but not

national forests under the Department of Agriculture.

A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 8, 2019, Section D,

Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Bears and Bikers

Meet in Uncharted Territory. Order Reprints | Today‚?Ts Paper |

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