Washington, DC May 1, 2017 – Just months after a female runner was mauled by a black bear during a race through a national park, that same park has approved a new trail race through bear country, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite admitting adverse impacts on wildlife and danger to participants, the park gave summary approval for a new race concluding that any problems would be “minimal.”
In June 2016 during a half-marathon through Valles Caldera National Preserve, a woman runner in her 50s scared a black bear cub up a tree as she ran by. The mother bear then mauled her, bit her neck and scratched her face, leaving her after she played dead. The woman was hospitalized and released the next day. New Mexico state game agents tracked and killed the sow. Two of her cubs were later recovered.
Months later, Valles Caldera park officials have permitted another trail run to be held on May 20, 2017 with up to 250 participants. The race timing and location is in both bear and mountain lion country and during elk calving. The park’s “Environmental Screening Form” points to potential problems, including:
- “Human-bear interactions could result in serious injury or death. At the time of the race bears will be actively looking for food and have small cubs.”
- “Runners and aid station workers may cause cow elk to leave their calves for the duration of the event (an entire day) leaving the calves open for predation. Cows may also abandon the calves completely.”
Nonetheless in a February 22, 2017 approval, Valles Caldera officials found no “significant impacts on public health or safety” and “minimal environmental disturbance.” The park issued a Categorical Exclusion for the race permit, meaning that it merited no detailed analysis. The principal safety mitigation is that runners and aides will have to wear “bear bells” and receive a notification they are in bear country.
“How many more people need be mauled for these clueless officials to conclude this is a bad idea?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out the event’s timing increases the likelihood of harmful human-wildlife interactions. “Parks are supposed to protect their wildlife from harassment, not invite it.”
In meeting notes about the event, park specialists seemed more than aware of the risks, asking:
- “If people need to have bear bells, should the race happen at all?”
- “Are we OK with losing some elk? The population is large. Are we managing at an individual or population level?”
- “Greatest good for the greatest number – is this event worth it?”
The same documents offer reasons why the park chose to overlook these risks, such as “Runners are potential partners” and “Holding the race could positively affect public perceptions of the accessibility and opportunities at [the park] and help meet some of the demand for recreational activities.”
“National parks are not supposed to sacrifice their assets or endanger visitors to curry popularity,” added Ruch who had complained to the National Park Service in a December letter (to which PEER received no reply) that last year’s race was run without a required permit or review and that Valles Caldera improperly allowed state game agents to kill park wildlife. “As one of the newest national park units, Valles Caldera looks as if it sorely needs some professional guidance on basic resource management.”