Twenty years ago, Brad Treat was one of Montana’s best high school distance runners, but his coach, Paul Jorgensen, remembers him for his humility and kindness. Once, Jorgensen recounted to the Flathead Beacon, after Treat finished first during a cross country race at the Missoula Invitational, he turned around and congratulated everyone else as they finished.
“I told my kids that story off and on over the years and then my kids started doing that, too,” he said. “Brad’s the one who started that.”
And so, it was with great sadness that the Flathead community mourned the loss of this local icon of sportsmanship, who died Wednesday afternoon after being attacked by a grizzly bear just south of Glacier National Park. Though he had maintained his athleticism — he was riding his mountain bike, after all — Treat, who was just 38 years old and a law enforcement officer with the U.S. Forest Service, couldn’t escape his fate.
But his companion did. Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry told the Associated Press that Treat and another man had been biking near Halfmoon Lake when they came across the bear, surprising it. The other man escaped unscathed and sought help while the bear knocked Treat off his bike.
Help arrived too late, and Treat was declared dead on the scene. The bear has not been found, though authorities are searching for it, and campers were briefed on the incident.
Treat’s death marks the seventh grizzly fatality since 2010 in the Northern Rockies, though the decade’s previous incidents have all occurred within the greater Yellowstone area. In fact, Treat is only the 11th person to have died from a bear attack in Glacier National Park since its creation in 1910. Park officials said that, roughly once or twice a year, visitors have nonfatal encounters with the bears, but according to the AP, the last death from an attack happened in 1998, when three bears killed a park vendor employee.
The numbers seem to suggest that bear attacks are on the rise, and most scientists agree that the tension between man and bear will continue to grow. A Casper Star-Tribune story from September 2014 noted that the number of bear attacks in Wyoming that had been reported so far in 2014 was roughly equal to the average number of reported incidents in a year. With regard to black bears, one study found that 86 percent of all fatal recorded black bear attacks between 1900 and 2009 happened after 1960.
The explanation is simple: “We have more people, we have more bears, and we have more people living in bear habitat,” John Beecham, a research biologist who studies interactions between bears and humans, told National Geographic in 2010.
Experts provide a similar explanation for the rising number of shark attacks. “More people are using the ocean now for recreation than ever before, so there is no doubt that we’re putting more people in the water,” Chris Lowe, professor in the department of Biological Studies and the Shark Lab at California State University at Long Beach told Men’s Journal in 2014. “You put more people in the water and add more sharks to coastal areas, you will have more shark-human related interactions.”
While bears seem to be adapting well to living near humans, scientists say that humans are less accommodating. For most experts, the solution is to educate the public in areas that have high or growing bear populations on how to safely coexist with the bears.
That was the conclusion of a scholarly study published in Scientific Reports in February, entitled “Human behaviour can trigger large carnivore attacks in developed countries,” which generally argued that the problem was not the animals but the humans.
Researchers, led by Vincenzo Penteriani, found that while attacks on humans by large carnivores were increasing, they remained “extremely rare events,” made to seem more common by hyped media coverage, “causing increased fear and negative attitudes towards coexisting with and conserving these species.”
“Remarkably,” they wrote, “risk-enhancing human behaviour has been involved in at least half of the well-documented attacks (47.6%). From highest to lowest, the five most common human behaviours occurring at the time of an attack were (a) parents leaving children unattended, (b) walking an unleashed dog, (c) searching for a wounded large carnivore during hunting, (d) engaging in outdoor activities at twilight/night and (e) approaching a female with young. These are clearly risk-enhancing behaviours when sharing the landscape with large carnivores.”
Interestingly, some scholars say humans are also to blame for the increase in human-elephant conflict — even though elephants aren’t carnivores. A 2006 New York Times story reported that hundreds of humans were killed between 2000 and 2006 in India, Bangladesh and Africa. According to Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist who studies elephant behavior, elephants are experiencing a form of species-wide trauma that resulted from human interference, such as poaching and the destruction or diminishing of their natural habitats.