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
‚?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
‚?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
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
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
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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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