Thursday, June 30, 2016


I have a near-theological unreasonable prejudice about the human ecologies on the two sides of the Rocky Mountain at this latitude.  They are economically based which means rooted in the characteristics of the terrain.  Semi-teasing, I warn again and again that the west side of the Rockies is a dangerous place.  I myself don’t go there.

Basically, the west side gets a lot of rain, which means they can grow trees and gardens.  The east side gets the Alberta Clipper arctic winds which can plunge the temp to tens of degrees below zero and which also scours the snow off the land in winter so grass is exposed.  This is not Chinook catabatic winds that take the temp up and melt snow, but ferocious high-velocity air that makes snow granules into sand-blasting and levels trees.  It keeps bears in dens all winter.

Animals, including humans, must adapt to whichever of the two contrasting sides they're on or be eliminated.  East side people raise small grain and livestock so that they are dispersed across the land and alert to weather.  The west side people are a dense population with near-urban lifestyles.  Accumulations of money come from interaction (business, health, institutions, recreation).  This difference is so deep that it goes back to pre-contact times, when tribes made war-trails across the Rockies.  One of them was the Marias Pass.  Glacier Park was taken out of the Blackfeet Reservation along that pass, because the pass is the route of the Highline of the cross-continent railroad, originally Great Northern.

Great Northern Railroad

Travel routes, especially between ecology gradients, are key to animal (including human) behavior.  West Glacier is the more “civilized” and dense area while East Glacier and the other resort-related towns on the rez (Babb, St. Mary, and potentially Heart Butte if you count pack-strings.) are more likely to include horsemen, hunters, and land scanners who have a high consciousness of animal movement and potential for danger.  

A bear in the wheat thirty miles out from the Rockies is going to be noticed.  A bear in thick forest will not be seen even if it’s close, will actively hide so it can watch the humans.  Hiking and biking paths the humans create and travel are also convenient for bears, but unless the humans are alert to scat and tracks, the signs of their presence won’t be noticed.  A person on a bike is not looking for bear sign — probably couldn’t see them unless they stopped.  In Valier, which is thirty miles out from the mountains, the gardeners and lawn scrutinizers notice even rather faint tracks.  Since they tend to use sprinklers, they make mud which is a sort of slate for tracks. 

A commenter in Portland who lived at 122nd on the east side, remarked on the occasional mountain lion coming into neighborhoods and felt that meant they were invading in numbers.  Since I was doing animal control there in the Seventies, I know that the Banfield Freeway, which goes up the Columbia Gorge, is a “feeder” for deer who think they are traveling along a river, esp. at night, which means that the mountain lions follow them — sometimes right into the Lloyd Center near the Willamette River.

On the west side of Portland are forested hills and a very large protected area, Forest Park, which is connected clear out to the Pacific Coast by a major power line.  The underbrush along those lines is constantly cut back which causes excellent forage browsing.  A band of elk lives along that pathway but has no reason to come into nearby downtown.  These structural elements of development are not normally thought about very much.  With ATV’s and trail bikes there is even more transit webwork than in the past and much of it connects to human housing along the margins of Glacier Park.

Bears and other predators have not evolved to cope with wheels.  When I was doing animal control in Portland, we often had complaints about dogs that chased and tried to bite wheels— even those on cars, of course -- but that wasn’t as much of a problem as bikes, wheelchairs and baby buggies.  The wheels evidently trigger predation instincts, the same ones that make the big cats in the zoo alert whenever a toddler rushes past.  They crouch low, put their front paws out front and back legs into spring-load, and lower their heads for eye scanning rather than putting up their noses high to get a bigger picture.

This girl's dog is a helper.

Some of the wheelchair people carried a length of hose or a stick to whack biting dogs that ran after them.  I taught bikers, esp. kids, to stop, dismount, stand with the bike between themselves and the dog, and yell, “Bad dog — go home.”  Sometimes bear spray was useful if a dog were big and vicious.  Baby buggies were a different problem because you don’t want to put a child between yourself and an attacker, nor do you want to get bear spray on a baby.  

My best advice in that case is a pressurized “canned air” boat horn which BLASTS a very loud noise means to carry over waves and boat motors.  Aside from warning an animal to stay back — sometimes even causing it to turn and run away — it brings the closest humans to see what is happening.

Given all this — but keeping in mind that we don’t yet have an account from the witness who saw the grizzly attack Brad Treat, 38, a West Glacier resident who grew up in Kalispell and worked as a law enforcement officer for the Forest Service — we can develop a few ideas and questions.

These were my earliest thoughts: the bear must have seen Treat from the brush but probably Treat had no awareness of the bear.  Maybe the bear was watching and triggered by the rushing wheels, so leapt out to grab or knock Treat off the bike before he even realized what was happening. Maybe Treat — a guy who was a trained runner and used to being fast — sensed the bear and tried to outrun it.  It’s impossible to outrun a grizzly.

Since the first reports, the stories have emphasized that they came upon the bear by surprise -- they were the ones moving.  Spinning along, came around a corner or over a hill and were suddenly presented with the bear.  Now the reports are that the second person was a family member.  I'm suddenly thinking it was a wife or child.  Treat may have engaged the bear to protect that person, screaming at them to go get help so they would leave without him.  

The two were evidently thinking they were close to populated areas — thus bears weren’t likely — and didn’t really “need” bear spray.  I can’t think why else they wouldn’t have it with them.  Treat might not have had enough warning to deploy it, but the second person might have.  The spot of the attack was two miles out from the KOA campground, which is described as “near” in media accounts and probably felt “near” in bike travel terms or in Eastern Montana terms.  But in Valier, Heart Butte, and the St. Mary’s Valley, “near” is the front yard. 

Why a law enforcement officer in the Forest Service didn’t seem to know more about bears seemed a good question, but if Treat were protecting a family member the situation was urgent.  A law enforcement officer is not used to being fearful — generally a guy with a badge is given respect and expects to prevail.  He was naturally a protective guy.  But being “alpha” is situational. We talk about mother bears being protective, but maybe this was a protective father human who gave his life.
But here’s another thing to think about that has nothing to do with bears.  In the same news cycle as the bear attack, two people in Kalispell took HIV tests and were positive.  Their lives are now utterly changed by an incredibly expensive and paperwork-intensive need to follow med regimes, to watch for all the dangers normally handled by their active immune system, and to reconsider their most intimate relationships.  A virus can be as dangerous as a huge carnivore/omnivore.  But no one seems particularly concerned about the HIV infection rates “near” a transient resort population.  

We are sentimental, easily frightened, irrational thinkers.  To stay safe, we need to guard against this bad thinking.

[ADDED July 2]  The story we're getting now is that the path was overgrown and narrow and the two bicyclists were traveling fast.  Treat actually smashed into the bear, to the surprise of both and the fatal reaction of the bear.  The search for it has been closed.

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