One would think a wild animal standing in the middle of a railway track would be frightened away by the warning whistle of an approaching train.
But the grizzly bear runs directly into the path of the train, as has been observed numerous times in Banff National Park.
Trains winding through the park are considered the biggest threat to the dwindling grizzly population in that area. There’s only 45 to 60 left. In the past 10 years, a dozen have died on the tracks and a half dozen cubs orphaned.
That’s cause for concern, considering the park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, encompasses a vast span of 6,641 square km (2,564 square miles) of rugged, unspoiled landscapes, and pristine mountain ranges.
But hope is on the horizon for these magnificent omnivores. Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific Railway created last fall a joint action plan to reduce the rail-line fatalities. And last week an information session was held involving some of North America’s leading bear and transportation scientists, Parks Canada and CP Rail to discuss preventative measures — for now and for the long term.
The timing is critical. Grizzlies last year were reclassified by Alberta as a “threatened species” because of rapidly dwindling numbers.
Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager for the park, said that while the number of bears killed by trains may appear small, their populations are so fragile one or two deaths could determine their long-term survival.
Hunt said if the park loses many more grizzlies, this icon of the wilderness may lose the capability of sustaining its numbers.
There are two main reasons grizzlies like the rail lines. Firstly, grain spilled by hopper cars bound for the shipping terminals at Burrard Inlet in Vancouver provide easy pickings. Secondly, the bears use the lines as a corridor in their travels, avoiding deep snow or muskeg.
Earlier this year, a sow grizzly ran directly into the path of an oncoming train near Lake Louise, orphaning two cubs. Early research has shown the bears, rather than dart into the bush to escape the train, they choose the easier, open path ahead — directly in line of the oncoming locomotive.
CP Rail is not taking this lightly. It’s spending $1 million on research to ease the threat to grizzlies. One idea is to redesign hopper cars to reduce grain spillage. In the meantime, its using track vacuum vehicles to clean up the spills as another deterrent.
Plans today include identifying problem areas along the tracks and use them as a “living laboratory” to test fatality reducing experiments. These sites will be used to test initiatives such as vegetation management, wayside systems to warn bears of approaching trains, and on-track structures to discourage the bears from using the lines as an escape path.
On-track structures are currently being tried in some problems areas. Wooden stakes have been pounded into the ground in the middle of the tracks making it uncomfortable on the paws for a grizzly running from a train. It would only make sense for it to veer off the track onto a more comfortable running space.
Also suggested are ‘electromats’ along the lines. Its an electric carpet that would give a bear a rude awakening when straying near the tracks by stepping on the zap blanket. It’s much like electric fences to keep cattle where they belong.
While human encroachment remains the biggest threat to the grizzlies in all areas of Alberta, it’s encouraging the problem in Banff National Park has been recognized and steps are being taken.
But it’s long overdue the think tanks got together and afforded the bruins outside the park the same consideration.
Provincial legislation must place severe restrictions on human encroachment in those areas; in particular, reigning in the energy and lumber industries. These rich giants enjoy a lot of freedom to cut swaths through sensitive grizzly bear habitat. It’s eagerly awaited to see how premier-designate Alison Redford handles this issue.
Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.