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Parks Canada and CP Railway working together to curb grizzly deaths along train tracks

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Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway are hoping a combination of electrified mats, an early warning system, prescribed burns, and cutting back railway vegetation will help reduce grizzly deaths on train tracks running through national parks.

These measures are the result of a joint, five-year research project into grizzly deaths on railways in Banff and Yoho National Parks. In the past decade, there have been 10 grizzly mortalities on railway tracks running through these two parks. It might not sound like a lot at first, but grizzlies are threatened in Alberta, and an average of 19 bears are killed in the province each year.

Although there hasn’t been a confirmed grizzly death along the CP line since 2012, the study began in 2010, when bear deaths along the railroad accounted for nearly a third of all bear mortalities in Banff National Park.

Colleen Cassidy St. Clair, a University of Alberta biologist who directed the five-year study, told CBC News that bears and other animals often freeze in place when confronted with an oncoming freight train, or they try to run in the opposite direction of its lights. Unfortunately, they can’t outrun the train, and according to a news release from the Government of Canada, “there is no simple solution to this issue.”

Photo courtesy of Parks Canada

Researchers used GPS radio-collars to track about a dozen bears roaming the parks between 2010 and 2015 to find out where the grizzlies were and when, so that they could gain some insight into why the bears walk along the railway tracks.

In some cases, they were after spilled grains that leaked from the railcars. But Cassidy St. Clair told reporters that’s not the only factor attracting the bears to the tracks, and it’s likely not the biggest one either. The bears are often walking along the railways simply because it’s an easier path, or because there’s such an abundance of berries and other plants nearby.

According to reports, CP has been working to curb the grain spillage for years, refurbishing the grain cars and using vacuum and blower trucks.

To solve the other problems, Parks Canada plans to create alternative trails for the bears, so they’re not forced to move along the corridor. They’re also planning to use prescribed burns to create more bear grazing areas away from the tracks, and will trim any vegetation along the rail lines that tends to attract bears. It will also open potential escape paths for them.

In addition, the parks service plans to install electromats and fences around railroad lubrication stations, where some bears enjoy a lick of grease, and will be experimenting with flashing lights and alarms in areas bears are most likely to use. CP is waiting to see how well they work before expanding the warning systems beyond the initial four sites, but early results have shown that other animals, like elk, are responding to the alarms and moving away from the tracks.

“We think animals will be able to learn to connect the warning with the train…and pass on to their offspring,” Cassady St. Clair told the Calgary Herald.