The bear appeared suddenly, as they are wont to do, while I pedaled my mountain bike up an overgrown logging road in the Whitefish Mountains of northwest Montana. In a practiced move, I grabbed the brake levers and whipped bear spray from my pocket as my feet hit the earth. All my senses zoomed in like a laser on the hulking brown creature before me. About 200 feet (61 meters) away, it filled the frame of my binoculars as it casually chewed roadside shrubs. It was a magnificent animal. Then it turned and lumbered straight toward me.
I took a short video as I tried to determine its motives. Though it was brown and disconcertingly well-muscled, it was clearly a black bear, which are typically less aggressive than grizzlies. It swung its snout from side to side to catch my scent. Was it stalking me? Running could trigger its predatory instincts. I lowered my camera. It was getting too close now. I had to do something.
Holding my bear spray in front of me, safety off, I loudly asked the bear what it was doing. At the sound of my voice, it instantly turned and loped away, looking back at me over its shoulder before disappearing into the forest. But my bear adventures weren’t over. I saw two others in the next hour and, finally, only a mile from my car, as the last light was draining from the sky, a bear came sprinting around a blind corner, ears flat, bounding with each stride, directly at me. At this point, I braked, pulled my spray, and popped the safety. Just as I was about to spray, I watched as the bear leapt into the forest next to me and another, even larger bear came around the corner and dove into the forest after it.
It was a spectacular sight, but by this point I was thoroughly overdosed on adrenaline. I just wanted to get to my hopefully bear-free car in a single piece, which I managed to do. I headed back to a cabin and dreamed about bears in my bedroom all night.
Big Carnivores Are Back
My bearapalooza experience shouldn’t be surprising—there are more bears and other large carnivores on the American landscape than there have been in more than a century, and their numbers are rising. Our conservation efforts, while far from complete, are working. Smarter management of our protected natural areas—national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, et al.—is allowing large predator numbers to rebound from their perilous lows of the 20th century.
Black bear populations have more than doubled in the past 25 years in California, the Northeast, Southeast, and many of the forested regions of the United States. Mountain lions are moving back into the Midwest. Wolves are fanning out from Montana to recolonize the Pacific Northwest and have been documented in California and Colorado. Biologists estimate there are almost 2,000 grizzly bears in Montana, and they’re expanding into areas they haven’t inhabited in generations. Some ecologists are even proposing reintroducing them to California, where they once thrived in numbers like those in Alaska. In other words, the bears are coming. Get used to it.
Meanwhile, a new breed of outdoors junkies is taking to the hills in growing numbers. They’re mountain bikers, trail runners, backcountry skiers, climbers, and paddlers. They’re fast, quiet, and love nothing more than venturing into the backcountry—the same places where there are now more bears, wolves, and mountain lions than at any time in modern history. Which raises a pointed question: Are they unnecessarily putting themselves, and wildlife, at risk?
Recent tragedies underscore the point. On June 29, Montanan Brad Treat was killed by a bear, most likely a grizzly, while mountain biking just outside Glacier National Park. In 2010, Candice Berner was killed by wolves while running alone outside Chignik Lake, Alaska. Perhaps most surprisingly, in 2009, 19-year-old Taylor Luciow was killed by a pair of “coywolves,” or coyote-wolf hybrids, while backpacking alone in a national park in Nova Scotia, Canada.
The number of bear attacks is increasing across their range in North America, with two separate grizzly maulings near Banff, Alberta, in the past week.
Heads Up in the Backcountry
While all recreationists must exercise caution, mountain bikers and trail runners are particularly at risk. Biologist Stephen Herrero, in his now-classic 1985 book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, was one of the first to call attention to the dangers of cycling and trail running in bear country when he wrote, “These activities, which are characterized by speed, not cautious attention to the possibility of encountering a bear, increase chances of sudden encounters and related injuries.”
The rub is that the great joy of self-powered backcountry sports is the supremely focused “flow state” we achieve, where body and mind unite in motion through space. It’s the same one-mindedness meditators seek, but spiced with a dose of adrenaline and an enlivening cocktail of chemicals and hormones that leave us feeling like euphoric animals in the playground of the world. That’s a wonderful thing, but becoming one with the single-track that rapidly unspools before you, or losing all sense of ego to the best powder turns of your life, are not recipes for tuning in to the environment beyond. (And if you don’t think skiers need to think about large carnivores, read this.)
“The concern with biking is that these encounters are at really close range and they’re surprise encounters,” says Jay Honeyman, a human-wildlife conflict biologist with Alberta Environment and Parks. “Bears don’t like being surprised. When they’re surprised, they feel threatened. And when they’re threatened, they often try to remove the threat.”
Bears Aren’t Paying Attention Either
Honeyman understands the potential for problems all too well. He oversees Banff and Jasper National Parks, two areas with a high wildlife density, a huge base of recreationists, and a history of carnivore conflicts. He says there has been a bumper berry crop this summer, and urges trail users to identify where wild berries are abundant.
“Bears are very inattentive right now,” he says. “They’ve got their heads in the bush and their butts sticking out on the trail, and they’re feeding. So we’ve got both parties not really tuned in to the other, and that’s where these problems are coming from.”
It’s a particular challenge for mountain bikers, who move at the highest speeds of any backcountry trail user and often have their situational awareness eclipsed by their laserlike focus on the trail ahead of them.
“I don’t recommend cycling in grizzly country unless you have really good visibility and you slow it down,” says Herrero, who also recommends redesigning trails without blind corners in bear habitat.
“People are traveling down these single-track trails, which have got a lot of buffalo berries along both sides, and are running into bears, literally in some cases,” says Honeyman. “If you’re going to be on your bikes, be really careful and cognizant of where you are and have good lines of sight. You need to be making noise and you need to be carrying bear spray.”
The Importance of Bear Spray
A study authored by Herrero found that bear spray deterred aggressive bears in 98 percent of recorded cases. In a recent case, a woman surprised a grizzly while she was mountain biking on the Lowline Trail outside Canmore, Alberta, on July 20. As the grizzly mauled the woman, her riding partner unleashed bear spray and sent the bruin fleeing, saving the biker’s life. Now, instead of being memorialized as someone who died doing what she loved, the young woman is recovering in Canmore General Hospital.
The paved Legacy Trail that runs from Canmore to nearby Banff National Park was temporarily closed in June after Honeyman surveyed trail users and found only five out of 150 carrying spray, despite signs warning of recent bear activity and urging all users to carry it. The point is clear: If people want access to places where bears live, we’re going to have to show we can do it responsibly.
For years, the greater Banff National Park region has been leading the way in teaching people to do exactly that. Trails are regularly closed when bears are present. Others require users to hike in groups of four or more, with everyone carrying spray. The route of the Banff Marathon was changed this summer to avoid a local wolf pack, and the 24 Hours of Adrenaline mountain bike race in Canmore used teams of Karelian bear dogs to locate and ward off bears along the course.
This latter tactic would have saved Los Alamos, New Mexico, resident Karen Williams from a mauling—and the life of the responsible black bear that was later killed by state wildlife officials—at the Valles Caldera Marathon on June 18. That’s just one example of how we need to be smarter and more proactive to keep people and wildlife safe.
A New Mindset for the Future
Those of us that love adventure shoulder a responsibility when we enter wild places. We know there are dangers, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But for ourselves, our families, and the bears, cougars, and wolves that live there, it’s time to start being more sensitive and aware in the backcountry. Take off your headphones. Pay attention to the world around you. Learn about wildlife behavior and habitat so you can make smarter, safer decisions.
Some suggest we shouldn’t enter the territory of large carnivores, or that people who use trails where bears live are somehow asking for it when an attack occurs. They’ve clearly never been to Montana, where even urban parks can harbor black bears, and more than once young grizzlies have wandered into the neighborhoods of tourist towns like Whitefish. To stay out of bear habitat there would mean never leaving your house.
As our conservation efforts increase, and as more of the modern world is “re-wilded,” more places will be like Montana. More predators means a healthier, more robust ecosystem, which benefits humanity in the form of what scientists call “ecosystem services”—clean water, nutrient-rich soil, better air quality. But re-wilding does not mean humans must retreat to developed islands. Civilization-addled humans can benefit from a bit of internal re-wilding, too. A deeper connection to the natural world only comes from time spent there. Wilderness is where our species evolved and it’s still our home, where even the smells of nature can lower blood pressure and trigger a host of health-inducing changes in the body.
It’s also important not to exaggerate the dangers large carnivores actually pose to people. You’re in much greater danger driving to the trailhead. Or on your couch (no, really!). Not only does a sedentary lifestyle lead to an abundance of life-shortening health risks, but also, more Americans are killed each year by falling furniture than by bears, wolves, and lions combined.
Keep that in mind the next time you head to the woods. And then grab your bear spray and a friend or two and keep your eyes open. You never know what you’ll see out there.