Environmental groups raise the red flag over bike paths in griz habitat

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Two local environmental groups have raised objections to a planned bike and pedestrian path network north of Columbia Falls in the lower Whitefish Range, claiming it could result in more conflicts with grizzly bears and displace other wildlife.

Grizzly bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Many biologists, however, believe the population locally has recovered; while others disagree,

The Swan View Coalition, Friends of the Wild Swan and Columbia Falls resident and wildlife consultant Brian Peck are all claiming the Forest Service should take a cumulative approach and create an Environmental Impact Statement that encompasses several other projects that add trails to the Whitefish Range and areas near the Hungry Horse Reservoir.

The Crystal Cedar Project north of Columbia Falls would add about 25 miles of new trails near Crystal Creek. Other projects, like the Taylor Hellroaring project, Hellroaring Basin Improvement, Hungry Lion, Bug Creek and others would add even more trails — about 79 miles total.

Taylor Hellroaring alone adds another 28 miles in the Whitefish Range near Big Mountain.

“We ask that the Flathead place a moratorium on trail construction and the issuance of special use permits for foot and bike races until it has developed a science and fact based program for minimizing risks to people and bears; for limiting and numerically accounting for the displacement of bears from trails, and has adequately incorporated that program into its Forest Plan and project National Environmental Policy Act analyses via enforceable mandatory standards,” the groups are asking the Forest Service.

In short, they claim more trails with more people mean more conflicts with bears, particularly in the case of mountain bikes.

They point to an analysis of bear-bike collisions done by longtime grizzly bear biologist David Mattson, who concluded that according to available data, “The percent of encounters that elicited some kind of aggressive response from involved bears is an astounding 14-times greater for mountain bikers compared to pedestrians.”

The groups also note that Parks Canada seasonally or permanently closed trails in areas where chances of hazardous encounters with bears were high.

Locally, there has been a tragic death from a mountain bike grizzly bear collision. Brad Treat was killed while mountain biking near West Glacier in 2016 on a trail when he ran into a grizzly bear. The bear killed Treat and left the scene.

The groups are already suing the Forest Service over the new Flathead National Forest plan.

That suit focuses on open road standards on the Forest. The old Forest Plan had a formula for road densities in grizzly bear habitat called Amendment 19. That amendment wasn’t carried over — instead, the new plan focuses on maintaining road densities at 2011 levels — the year that grizzly bears were considered recovered in the region.

But the groups claim the new rules leave far too much leeway for roads and road construction. Swan View Coalition Chairman Keith Hammer said in a recent interview that Amendment 19 also restricted “high use” trails in grizzly bear habitat. The Crystal-Cedar’s trails and timber sales, however, are not in what’s considered “core” grizzly bear habitat.

The groups have to first use the objection process before they could bring suit on the trail issue, though the trail issue could be folded into the current lawsuit on roads, Hammer noted.

The idea of mountain bikes trails and other trails north of Columbia falls has had broad support from the biking and hiking community and government leaders.

The city of Columbia Falls, for example, has written letters of support for the Crystal Cedar Project in the past. Bikers note that the trail system could easily tie into mountain bike and pedestrian trails in town.

All told, the Forest Service received seven objections the project, noted Flathead National Forest spokeswoman Lauren Alley.

Those included concerns about Nordic ski opportunities, impacts to adjacent landowners, and wildlife security and human safety.

The Forest Service responses to the objections from the regional office typically come 45 days after the objection period closes.

The regional office has a few options in its review. It may decide to uphold the analysis that the forest has completed, or it may ask the Forest to take another look at one or more pieces, Alley noted.

The objections should be posted on the project’s web page soon, Alley said.

The direct link to the project is: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=52844

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