Conservation Group Hopes to Stop Flathead Foot Races

Swan View Coalition says Forest Service shouldn’t sanction trail-running races in grizzly habitat, even in heavily used areas

By Tristan Scott
Whitefish Trail. Beacon File Photo

A local conservation group is opposing two foot races planned to take place on existing trails because, its chairman argues, the respective courses track through grizzly bear habitat and create a safety hazard, even as event organizers say they selected the front-country routes specifically because the trails already receive heavy recreational use.

The group opposing the trail-running events is the Swan View Coalition, whose chairman, Keith Hammer, says the Flathead National Forest should rescind a special use permit it approved in April for the Whitefish Legacy Partners to organize a 50-kilometer ultramarathon, as well as retract another permit for the Foy’s to Blacktail Trail Marathon.

Both events are single-day races that support the nonprofit groups, which for years have worked to secure conservation easements on parcels in both Whitefish and Kalispell in order to stave off development pressures, expand and improve trail systems and allow public access to the land.

The Whitefish Trail is the anchor project of Whitefish Legacy Partners (WLP), the upshot of a community collaborative to preserve clean water, public access, recreation, and working forests. Under the permit guidelines, the race would be capped at 200 participants and helps raise money for the organization.

The efforts of the Foy’s to Blacktail Trails organization have developed and improved a trail system between Blacktail Mountain and Herron Park by securing numerous conservation easements with private landowners. Its race raises funds for those efforts and is currently capped at 50 participants, though it hopes to be allowed to admit 100 runners.

But Hammer said the U.S. Forest Service issued the permits without distributing the proposal for public scoping and comment, in violation of the law and the agency’s own policies.

According to Flathead National Forest District Ranger Bill Mulholland, the agency scoped the proposals internally to determine whether any circumstances warranted further analysis. After completing the review, he identified nothing of significance.

Still, as a result of Hammer’s complaints about the permits, the Forest Service began collecting public input on them. The comment period lasted until June 19 and the comments are currently being reviewed.

For Hammer, this isn’t the first time he’s opposed trail races in bear country.

In 2012, Hammer’s group opposed a planned 100-mile footrace along the crest of the Swan Mountain range, arguing that it should not be permitted as a special use because it ran through grizzly bear habitat. Hammer suggested relocating it somewhere less fragile, such as on the Foy’s to Blacktail trails or Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain.

“We urge Flathead National Forest to confine speed sports to the developed Big Mountain area so the negative impacts to fish, wildlife and human safety do not spread across the Forest,” Hammer and the Swan View Coalition wrote at the time. And in a 2010 interview with the Beacon, Hammer suggested the Foy’s to Blacktail trail complex as a more suitable area for the Swan Crest event.

According to Mulholland, the Whitefish ultramarathon passed muster because it is a one-day event on existing roads and trails within the Whitefish Mountain Resort permit boundary, an area that receives heavy use in the summer from mountain bikers, runners, hikers, dog walkers, and berry pickers.

The proposed course begins in Whitefish, connects runners to the Whitefish Trail in Haskill Basin and tops out on the summit of Big Mountain before returning to town.

According to organizers, the course would use the Whitefish Trail, the trails at Whitefish Mountain Resort and Flathead National Forest trails to demonstrate the connectivity of recreational parcels as well as conservation projects in and around Whitefish.

In his comments to the Forest Service, Hammer criticized the agency for issuing the permit without seeking public comment, and said that by issuing the permit it is disregarding its own safety recommendations against “irresponsible recreation in bear habitat.”

Those safety recommendations emerged after the 2016 death of Brad Treat, a U.S. Forest Service officer who was riding his mountain bike on trails near West Glacier when he collided with a grizzly bear. Treat was fatally mauled in the tragic accident.

The circumstances of the accident were detailed in a report issued by a special interagency Board of Review (BOR) consisting of state and federal wildlife officials, and chaired by retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear biologist Chris Servheen.

In comments to the Forest Service, Servheen also opposed the trail races, deferring to the BOR’s recommendations.

“I oppose the USFS issuing special use permits for trail running events in grizzly and black bear 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,” he wrote. “There is no safe way to run in bear habitat.”

But Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber was dismissive of the notion that activities like trail running disproportionately expose people to the potential for a run-in with a bear.  Instead, he believes that bears and people are increasingly coming into contact because bear populations are growing, their geographic distribution is expanding and people are increasingly using the forests to recreate.

Weber said there have been 78 documented human fatalities from black bears and brown bears (which include grizzly bears) since 1990 in North America.  Of those, 37 percent were associated with hiking or walking, 12 percent hunting, 4 percent fishing, and 1 percent tending fence on horseback.

“So, 54 percent of the fatalities were associated with slow, quiet activities,” he wrote in a letter to the Beacon. “The next most frequent activity was camping at 19 percent. These attacks are often associated with food storage issues … There were a variety of other activities that only rarely resulted in bear-caused fatalities, including mountain biking at 3 percent and running at 4 percent.”

He continued: “This information at least begs the question of whether limiting folks to enjoying only slow, quiet activities in areas where bears are present provides any greater safety for people or bears.”

Still, Hammer said the agency’s issuance of a permit for trail-running events was effectively condoning behavior that could increase human-bear conflicts.

“We ask the government here to do as it did with the tobacco industry,” Hammer wrote in an email to news organizations. “It doesn’t necessarily tell people they can’t smoke, but it does put health risk warnings on every pack of cigarettes and does not allow tobacco companies to use public airwaves and public buses to advertise cigarette smoking. We want the Forest Service to consistently warn people to not run and bike fast in bear habitat, and to not issue Special Use Permits that commercially promote such irresponsible activities.”