As outdoor enthusiasts recreate deeper into the woods, bear encounters increase. Mountain bikers are starting to see bears much more frequently, but by taking certain precautions risks are lowered. Photo: Grant Ordelheide/Tandem
Brad Treat was cruising through a densely wooded trail in northwest Montana last summer when he rounded a corner and slammed into a 20-year-old grizzly bear. Traveling nearly 25 miles per hour, Treat and his bicycle were hurled airborne upon impact, flipping clear over the animal. When he hit the ground, he broke both wrists and his scapula. Treat’s companion, who was riding about 25 yards behind him, heard the thud and an “Argh!” before turning the corner and seeing the grizzly standing and staring down at Treat.
Seconds later, Treat’s friend retreated down the trail to fetch help. But by the time help arrived two hours later, Treat, a 38-year-old Forest Service officer and accomplished outdoorsman, was dead. The male grizzly bear had bitten through his skull several times before leaving the scene. Treat’s helmet lay beside him, in pieces. “It was a rapid event. All of this happened within seconds,” says Chris Servheen, who co-authored an independent report on the incident, released March 3.
News of Treat’s death shook mountain bikers across the West and even made national headlines. How could this possibly happen, people wondered?
The report, authored by members of the U.S. Forest Service, Glacier National Park, and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, offers new details on the incident. Treat and his friend, who had never before ridden a mountain bike on a trail (and who the report did not identify), were less than a mile from the trailhead when Treat hit the bear. There were no skid marks at the scene, indicating Treat may not have had time to react before hitting the bear. Treat and his wife jogged the trail regularly, and Treat biked the trail several times a week. Neither Treat nor his companion carried bear spray, a firearm, or a cellphone.
Encountering a bear on the trail is a nightmare scenario for any mountain biker. But the report suggests Treat’s death was not an anomaly and raises concerns about similar encounters that have unfolded across bear territory in North America in recent years. Because mountain bikers ride fast and make little noise, “mountain biking is in many ways more likely to result in injury or death from bear attacks” than hiking, the report reads.
There are no official or centralized statistics on mountain biker-bear encounters, but there are several documented incidents from the past decade alone. Just two weeks before Treat’s death, a rider in the Sierra Nevadas collided with a black bear, which sent him flying over his handlebars. The bear ran off and the man came away uninjured. In 2014, a grizzly bear charged a mountain biker in Canada’s Jasper National Park, knocking him off his bike. The bear bit into the rider’s bear spray canister, which sent the animal fleeing and saved the rider’s life. Also in Jasper, just a few months earlier, a mother grizzly protecting her cub charged two mountain bikers. The riders ditched their bikes and sprinted away. A woman mountain biking in Calgary was killed by a black bear in 2007. Other encounters have been reported in Wyoming, Wisconsin, Alaska, and throughout Canada.
Both the number of mountain bikers and the number of bears across the West grows each year. According to a 2016 Outdoor Industry Association study, participation in mountain biking grew by roughly 20 percent—from 6.9 million people to 8.3 million—between 2007 and 2015. Meanwhile, grizzly and black bears in the West, Alaska, and Canada number in the hundreds of thousands—and their populations are increasing, according to National Geographic. Of the roughly 20,000 mountain bike trails in the U.S., about 5 percent weave through grizzly territory, and well over half of trails are in states where black bears roam, according to a MTB Project database. In that context, it’s easy to imagine more encounters in the future.
“It’s an emerging issue as biking becomes more…