Flathead Forest Approves Whitefish Ultramarathon

Decision final despite concerns about sending runners through grizzly bear habitat

By Tristan Scott
Beacon file photo

Flathead National Forest officials have approved a 50-kilometer ultramarathon in Whitefish after opponents of the foot race, a portion of which traverses the trails at Whitefish Mountain Resort, raised concerns over whether sending runners through grizzly habitat aligned with the best interests of both bears and runners.

Organizers and officials with Flathead National Forest said the race is a one-day event that takes place on existing roads and trails in a heavily used area already designated for recreational activities like mountain biking, trail running and hiking.

The primary group opposing the trail-running event is the Swan View Coalition, whose chairman, Keith Hammer, urged the Flathead National Forest to rescind a special use permit it approved in April for the Whitefish Legacy Partners to organize a 50-kilometer ultramarathon.

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

Still, as a result of Hammer’s complaints about the permits, the Forest Service began collecting public input on them for a one-week period. The comment period lasted until June 19 and Mulholland again found no reason to rescind the permit.

“This type of activity is 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,” Mulholland wrote in his decision to permit the race. “Recreation special uses are used as a tool to provide desired recreation opportunities.”

In response to the final decision, Hammer said he was “disappointed but not surprised” by the Forest Service’s decision to issue the special use permit to Whitefish Legacy Partners, which is organizing the event.

“Our conscience is clear,” Hammer wrote in a statement. “We’re not saying people can’t trail run and ride mountain bikes on the Flathead, but we don’t think the Flathead should be commercially promoting races that negate the warnings that such activities increase risk and can have grave consequences.”

Hammer emphasized that retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear biologist Chris Servheen, who is widely respected, also objected to the permit.

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. It will take place Oct. 5.

According to Mulholland, the Whitefish ultramarathon passed initial muster because it falls within the parameters of an existing permit on Whitefish Mountain Resort’s Big Mountain, a large swath of which is on Forest Service land.

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 response to Hammer, the Forest Service also opened up to public comment a decision to issue a special use permit to organizers of the proposed Foy’s to Blacktail Marathon, which is set for Sept. 22 and would send runners along a course between Blacktail Mountain and Herron Park. Forest officials will make a final decision on the permit in the near future.

Organizers of both events say they are taking the usual precautions of preparing for an event in bear country, including encouraging runners to carry bear spray and pledging to sweep the course prior to the race to search for any animal carcasses that could present a hazard and increase the chance of a bear conflict.