Canadian researchers say they may have come up with a way to keep grizzly bears from being hit by trains.
In a paper published earlier this year in "The Royal Society," leading researcher Colleen Cassady St. Clair noted that a warning system of even just 30 seconds could give bears enough time to get off the tracks when a train is approaching. In addition, the grizzlies could learn to avoid train collisions just like humans do at railroad crossings, according to St. Clair, a biological sciences professor at the University of Alberta.
“There has been a test of the warning system but it hasn’t been published yet,” St. Clair told the Missoulian. “The preliminary results are promising but we haven’t come to any conclusions yet.”
So far this year trains are suspected in at least eight grizzly bear deaths in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. That's according to a notice of intent to sue BNSF railroad filed earlier this month by Pete Frost at the Western Environmental Law Center. He added that to his knowledge between 1980 and 2018 trains along the BNSF route in northern Montana and Idaho killed or contributed to the death of about 52 grizzly bears from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
Frost added that the 67-mile stretch of railway between West Glacier and Browning is where trains reportedly killed 29 grizzlies between 1980 and 2002.
The NCDE spans more than 8,900 square miles of mainly public land on either side of Glacier National Park and is home to an estimated 1,000 grizzlies.
St. Clair’s research team focused on the much smaller grizzly population in Banff National Park, where train strikes have become a leading cause of mortality. They looked at a whether the problem involved grain spilled from rail cars or train-killed ungulates that were drawing grizzlies to railroad tracks; areas where terrain might prompt bears to use train tracks to travel; whether berries or other vegetation drew bears near tracks; and whether a warning system with lights and/or bells triggered by oncoming trains in trouble spots could teach bears to get off the tracks.
“There’s a widespread belief that grain spilled on the railway attracts bears and if omitted they would go away,” St. Clair said. “We investigated that and other attractants pretty thoroughly and found there was no single culprit like grain. In fact, where grain was spotted there was less mortality. So as a smoking gun that didn’t fit very well.”
The study noted that fencing off the tracks, as is done along some highways, was too expensive. Then they started looking specifically at confirmed grizzly bear mortality sites near Banff and Lake Louise, which were hot spots near highway overpasses and interchanges along a curving track.
“These complex features increase the likelihood that bears fail to detect or escape approaching trains, but they cannot alone explain the sudden onset of train-caused mortality,” the study stated.
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The researchers quickly realized the importance of grizzlies' ability to learn and adapt. So they developed a system similar to those for people, where approaching trains are signaled by ringing bells and flashing lights. The bear version is a track-mounted device that detects passing trains via vibration, then emits warning bells and flashing lights.
“Preliminary results suggest that activation of these devices causes animals near the track to retreat from trains several seconds earlier than animals in the same locations when the device is not activated,” the study noted. “Additional work will determine whether track curvature and adjacent topography can predict locations where the sounds of approaching trains are more difficult to detect, potentially contributing to collision hot spots, and suggesting where warning systems could be most helpful.”
St. Clair added that an important part of the warning system is whether the animals can learn to associate the bells and lights with the passage of trains, which is what drivers do when they stop at railroad crossings.
“All things change on the landscape, and bears had to learn by trial and error. We think they have a tremendous capacity to learn,” St. Clair said. “We’re inviting their own participation in this. The warning devices are specific solution-oriented devices.”
She noted that her own researchers found out that the terrain can fool people about approaching trains because the sound can bounce off objects. They were surprised at times by trains, and ended up needing to have one person devoted to looking for trains for safety reasons.
“I’m not suggesting warning devices all over the tracks; that’s too expensive … but for the locations where there are the highest frequency of mortalities it might be worthwhile,” St. Clair said, with the study adding that “Learning based mitigation may be most helpful for species, like grizzly bears, with high reproductive skew, slow reproductive rates and the capacity to learn about novel predators.”
Randy Arnold, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 2 supervisor who also is chair of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem subcommittee, said he wasn’t aware of the Canadian study on the warning devices. He added that the NCDE is having its fall meeting on Dec. 3 at the DoubleTree Hotel in Missoula and will be discussing ways to lower grizzly mortalities.
“I do know that rail lines and railroads are part of that discussion,” Arnold said. “And our habitat conservation plan is coming out and will have some information on how to work with the railroads.”
Maia LaSalle, a spokesperson for BNSF, was out of the office and didn’t return a phone call and email seeking comments on the study. However, LaSalle previously told the Missoulian that BNSF’s Habitat Conservation Plan and Incidental Take Permit are in the final stages of review before being published for public comment.
She added that for more than 20 years BNSF has worked to reduce the number of grizzly bears being struck by trains by instituting mandatory reporting of grizzly strikes by train crews and protocols for removing grain, carrion, vegetation and other attractants from train tracks.