Are Bears a Future Trail Access Issue?

The tragic death of a rider last June could have implications for trail access

From the moment Brad Treat saw the grizzly bear to the moment he collided with it on his mountain bike, he probably had a half-second to a second to react. There were no skid marks in the dirt. No attempt to swerve. According to a multiagency Board of Review report released last week about the attack that took Treat’s life on June 29, 2016, near his home in West Glacier, Montana, Treat hit the 400-pound bear so hard that he broke both of his wrists and his shoulder blade trying to break his fall.

Treat’s riding partner, who is unidentified in the report, stated he was pedaling 20 to 25 yards behind Treat at about 2 p.m. when Treat rounded a bend on a trail in the Flathead National Forest. The partner heard a collision and the bear roar as if it had been hurt. By the time he came upon the aftermath, the bear was standing over Treat in the middle of the trail. Neither man carried bear spray, a gun or a cell phone. After concluding that any attempt to thwart the bear’s attack would endanger his own life, Treat’s partner decided to walk a mile through dense woods toward a nearby highway. He flagged down a vehicle and called for help at 2:52 p.m.

By the time a National Park Service ranger arrived at the scene of the collision, at 4:03 p.m., Treat had been fatally mauled and the bear was gone.

A photo showing the trail approaching the corner where the attack occurred. The person visible behind the foliage is standing where Treat collided with the bear. Left: A basic map of the incident. Images: BOR Report

The attack rippled through the Flathead Valley like a bad dream. Treat, 38 and married, was well known as a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer and volunteer backcountry rescuer. More than 2,000 people showed up to his memorial service, where Treat was remembered as a superhero and native son, the Flathead Beacon reported.

But eight months later, his death has become a hot topic in mountain biking advocacy for a different reason. That’s because along with its factual report on Treat’s accident, the interagency Board of Review (BOR) sounded an alarm about riding in bear country—which includes no small number of revered fat-tire routes, not just in Montana but much of the West.

Treat’s death, the report stated, “necessitates increased attention to the dangers associated with mountain biking in black bear and grizzly bear habitat.” In addition, seemingly dictating to land managers, the report added: “Before new trails are opened to mountain biking in bear habitat, particularly grizzly habitat, there should be careful evaluation of the safety and reasonableness of enhancing mountain bike access in these areas where bear density is high.”

The latter recommendation, in particular, has made bike advocates uneasy. Montanans, as well as riders throughout the northern Rockies, already contend with unique challenges when it comes to access; the region is the epicenter of the conservation movement, which often conflicts with motorized and mechanized travel such as mountain biking, and mountain bikers in Montana have already lost access to some 900 miles of trail in the past decade. The idea that Treat’s death could lead to further limitations sent at least one advocacy group into a closed-door meeting last week, to discuss the BOR’s report and recommendations.

Bears and mountain bikers share many spaces, including where this photo was taken–the Whistler Bike Park. Photo: Dave Reddick

No one tracks how many mountain bikers have been mauled by bears, but according to a Google search and an unofficial online listing of fatal attacks, Treat was just the second mountain biker to be killed by a bear in North America (the first was a 31-year-old woman who was mauled by a black bear in British Columbia in 2007). His attack involved an extraordinary set of circumstances—and was almost certainly the result of his colliding with the bear, a male that investigators determined to be around 20 years old, with no prior aggressive behavior on record, based on DNA samples taken from the accident site and from its capture in 2006 in nearby Glacier National Park. Investigators determined the bear’s actions toward Treat were most likely not predatory, and it was never located.

Treat, who grew up in nearby Kalispell and was a state champion distance runner at Flathead High School, knew his backyard better than almost anyone. He rode the Outer Loop Trail, where he died, four to six times a week, his wife told investigators. They ran it together with their dog every morning, including on the day of the attack. Treat maintained it, too. According to his wife, he liked to try and beat his best time whenever he rode it. He was hardly naïve to the perils of riding in bear habitat—in fact, he had seen black bears and grizzlies while riding the Outer Loop Trail before, the report stated.

“Our position is that this is incredibly rare. People have been mountain biking in the backcountry for 30 years and we have two data points of people being killed by bears,” said Ben Horan, executive director of Mountain Bike Missoula. “We realize that it’s dangerous and that us as a user group moving at higher speeds does put us in a position of elevated risk compared with someone who’s out there hiking and enjoying the day”—but Horan, as well as another northern Rockies advocate who shared his thoughts in an email, does not believe that should be cause to block bike access.

And it remains unclear whether it could. Chris Servheen, one of the country’s preeminent grizzly experts and the Board of Review chair for Treat’s accident (the panel included four other state and federal bear experts), clarified the board’s position in a phone interview. “We’re not saying that there shouldn’t be mountain bike access, period, in bear habitat, because bear habitat is large and there is lots of it,” Servheen said. “But we talked about an idea of [evaluating zones on] a case-by-case basis.” That could include avoiding routes with limited sight distances and instituting seasonal closures in areas where bears feed, like huckleberry fields in late summer.

Photo: Sterling Lorence

Some trails are periodically closed to hiking access for the same reasons, said Servheen. He added: “I know that some people would say, well, if mountain bikers were really concerned about their safety they wouldn’t be mountain biking in the first place, riding as fast as they do with helmets in rugged places. But we want to balance the needs of animals with the needs of humans.”

The implications are unlikely to affect ongoing trail allocations, like, for example, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, which Sen. Jon Tester introduced to Congress 10 days before the BOR report was made public. The BCSP calls for preserving bike access to existing trails in grizzly country near Missoula and was the result of compromise between conservation and recreation groups.

The U.S. Forest Service does not have any direction about how to manage bikes in bear habitat, said Lolo National Forest wildlife biologist Elizabeth Roberts. However, the agency does limit road density in core grizzly habitat per the terms of the Endangered Species Act. And Lolo spokesman Boyd Hartwig said an amendment to local forest plans could soon prohibit the addition of more than one trailhead in a given “bear management unit” per decade. Bruce Alt, vice president of government relations at the International Mountain Bicycling Association, said bear habitat has not directly factored into IMBA’s advocacy efforts up to now.

So what, then, can be done? The BOR’s recommendations include eight actions mountain bikers can take, including: be vigilant and watch for signs of bear activity, like scat; carry bear spray (slipping it into a bottle cage works well, or strapping it to the outside of your pack); slow down; make noise; don’t ride alone; and never ride at dusk or dawn.

Photo: Harookz

Servheen said he hopes bike shops and land managers will post more bike-specific warnings, given the increased risk of surprising a bear at higher speeds. Past research has found that bears are more likely to attack if they become aware of your presence inside of 50 meters, but since no one makes a bear bell that can alert a bear in a forest from farther away than 50 meters, you’d have to carry a foghorn and blast it again and again as you rode. Instead of that, Horan recommends singing and yelling while on a descent.

More than anything, Servheen said, Treat’s death provided a “wake-up call” to the Board of Review members, who realized how little bike-specific messaging exists when it comes to riding in bear habitats.

“If you feel like you really need to ride as fast as you can, then you should go somewhere where you can do that,” Servheen said. “But it wouldn’t be a place where there are bears.”

Horan said Mountain Bike Missoula will add the BOR’s advice to its website and literature this spring. Access implications aside, “The vast majority of the board’s recommendations really focused on biker behavior, and that’s something we definitely support,” Horan said.


You can view the Board of Review Report here.

Donations in memory of Brad can be made to the Brad Treat Memorial Fund.