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Canada Experts mull bear necessities to keep grizzlies off train tracks in Banff

A female grizzly bear is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Parks Canada-Steve Michel

THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Parks Canada-Steve Michel/THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Parks Canada-Steve Michel

Some of the world's foremost bear experts are to gather in Banff next month to find new ways to prevent grizzlies from getting killed along railway tracks inside the national park.

A dozen of the bears have been killed and a half dozen cubs orphaned in the last decade and experts estimate there are now only between 45 and 60 grizzlies left in the park. Last year, Alberta reclassified the species as threatened because of rapidly dwindling numbers.

Three of the mighty bruins have died this year. Two were killed on the Trans-Canada Highway. A third was hit by a train on the CP Rail line and left behind two orphan cubs.

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"It's the highest cause of grizzly bear mortality in Banff National Park. This particular risk persists and we're losing one to two bears per year," said Tracy Thiessen from Parks Canada."Every time we lose a female reproducing grizzly it's a huge blow."

The federal government announced a plan last fall to reduce the number of bear deaths caused by trains. The strategy included better use of train whistles and fences to keep bears away. It also suggested gates and structures to discourage the animals from trying to use the tracks as an escape route in the path of oncoming trains.

"These innovative initiatives will incorporate the best science available to address railway-related bear mortality through shared responsibility," federal Environment Minister Peter Kent said in a statement Tuesday.

Canadian Pacific Railways is spending $1 million on research to come up with ways to deter grizzlies, which are attracted to grain spills along the tracks. A redesign of hopper cars to reduce the amount of grain spilled appears to be working.

"We've got data that indicates that since the cars have been retrofitted, grain spills have been reduced by 80 per cent, so that's absolutely huge," said Ms. Thiessen. "But bears are very motivated animals and even a little bit of grain is enough for them to go forage for it. They'll dig around for even a fine sprinkling of grain."

The research symposium Sept. 28-29 is to bring together some of North America's leading bear and transportation scientists to share information and ideas and develop medium- and long-term solutions. Promising pilot projects will be identified and tested to determine their effectiveness.

"Given the complexity of bear behaviour in Banff National Park we have what we believe to be a very strong framework to move forward in a variety of areas," said Ms. Thiessen. "We want to talk to experts who may be aware of other research or other technologies that might make a difference.

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"When you look at a problem as complex as bears on the railway it's going to take a really complex solution. There isn't one single thing you can do that can solve this problem."

Studies show that about half of Alberta's estimated 700 grizzly bears live in the foothills and mountains in the Grande Cache region west and north of Edmonton.

Most of the rest are scattered in pockets up and down the Rocky Mountain chain along the boundary with British Columbia.

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