HELENA, Mont. – Wildlife officials set traps and scouted the woods by helicopter Thursday for the bear that attacked and killed a U.S. Forest Service employee as he rode a mountain bike along a trail outside Glacier National Park.
Brad Treat, 38, was knocked off his bike Wednesday after he another rider apparently surprised the bear – a grizzly, according to initial accounts – in the Flathead National Forest, authorities said.
The other rider, whose name was not released, went to get help and was not hurt.
Bears that attack humans are killed if it is found that they displayed predatory behavior, such as stalking the person, or ate their victim.
In this case, officials said is too soon to say what will be done to the bear if it is found.
They are trying to determine if it was a mother with cubs, whether it was protecting a food cache nearby or whether it simply reacted to the surprise appearance of the bicyclists, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said.
“One of the things that is key to all this is whether it was a predatory act,” Aasheim said. “I don’t think there’s any sense that this was predatory.”
Wildlife officials set traps near the trail and flew low over the trees in a helicopter. But finding the animal will be difficult because bears can range for miles and the area is dense with grizzlies, authorities said. There are an estimated 1,000 in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes the park.
To confirm whether they have the right bear, wildlife officials typically collect DNA evidence from the animal to compare it to evidence found at the scene, analyze bite marks and other injuries on the victim, and examine the animal’s claws, jaws and feces for human remains.
An autopsy was being performed on Treat at the state crime labor, where Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said any DNA the bear left behind will be collected and its bite marks will be measured. That information could help authorities determine the size, age and sex of the bear, narrowing the search.
Wildlife officials said they are testing DNA samples from the scene to establish whether it was a grizzly, as initially suspected, or a black bear.
Authorities closed the area, about 3 miles from Glacier’s western entrance, as a precaution.
Grizzlies in the Lower 48 states have been designated a threatened species since the 1970s, but their numbers are increasing and so are run-ins between humans and bears.
Before Wednesday, at least six people had been mauled to death by bears in the Northern Rockies since 2010, but all those cases were in the Yellowstone National Park area, which is about 360 miles from Glacier and has at least 700 grizzlies.
Before Treat was killed, there had been 10 bear-related human deaths in Glacier since the park was created in 1910. The last was in 1998, when three bears killed and partially ate a park vendor employee while he was hiking.
Treat, a law enforcement officer with the Forest Service, was married and lived in nearby West Glacier. He grew up in Kalispell, where he was a standout distance runner in high school, said his former coach, Paul Jorgensen.
Jorgensen recalled that Treat would usually be among the top finishes during cross-country meets but would stick close to the finish line to congratulate all the other runners as they came in. The coach liked that so much he asked the other athletes on the team to do the same thing.
“We all have fond memories of Brad Treat,” Jorgensen said. “A lot of people really liked Brad. He was a favorite for many of the kids I coached and also as part of the high school.”