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Parks Canada, CP work to keep grizzlies off rail tracks Add to ...

Thirteen grizzly bears have been struck and killed by trains chugging through the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary in the past 12 years. Those bears left behind six cubs, which also perished without the guidance of their mothers.

A sow was hit last spring in Banff National Park, orphaning two cubs, which have been spotted foraging on their own, much to the relief of Parks Canada officials.

But the loss of even one female bear of reproductive age in an already fragile population is a huge blow to the overall health of the ecosystem, parks officials and environmentalists say.

Now, Parks Canada is collaborating with Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. in an effort to reduce the carnage. Last fall, Ottawa and the corporate giant announced that they would examine the issue – CP has earmarked $1-million over five years for research – and on Tuesday, the first initiatives to come out of that collaboration were announced.

They include a symposium this fall that could build the foundation for helping protect the threatened species in Alberta. It could also help save bears from similar fates in other jurisdictions.

“Banff National Park isn’t the only place where animals are being hit by the train,” said Sarah Elmeligi of the southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. “It’s happening across western North America and nobody has found a solution to the problem.”

So far, tactics ranging from bells and whistles to vacuuming spilled grain off the tracks haven’t proved to be “silver bullets,” said Tracy Thiessen, the executive director of mountain parks for Parks Canada.

Banff has about 60 grizzlies left, and Alberta government data show just 691 of the bruins roaming provincial land, down from about 1,000 in 2002.

What Parks Canada is doing

Over the years, Ottawa has tackled bear-human conflict by closing dumps and bringing in bear-proof garbage cans.

The TransCanada Highway has been fenced and twinned through much of Banff, and underpasses and overpasses placed at wildlife corridors. The initiatives have helped reduce vehicle strikes. Still, two grizzles have been killed this year in Banff on the country’s main east-west artery.

Last year, and again this year, parks workers have cut down buffalo berries, a favourite treat for bears, along the railway tracks in an effort to deter grizzlies.

What CP is doing

CP has spent $20-million over the past five years retrofitting the gates on its fleet of 6,300 hopper cars, which were dropping grain and creating an easy and plentiful food source for bears. Vacuum trucks were also called in to clear the tracks. Those efforts led to a 79-per-cent reduction in grain spillage, Ms. Thiessen said, but it didn’t keep the bears away.

“The bears are still interested,” she added. “We have a generation of bears habituated to look for it.”

Bells, whistles, horns and lights also have been used. An onboard locomotive camera system records collisions.

CP is now looking at “out of the box” solutions and testing new measures, spokeswoman Breanne Feigel said.

A “bear board” or flat structure with pegs sticking up that bears can’t walk on, has been placed at a trouble spot near Lake Louise. CP is also considering gate and fencing structures there.

The company has asked engineers to find a way to use technology to create an “advance warning system” that could notify nearby wildlife of approaching trains.

What else is being done

About 50 bear experts and transportation scientists from all over North America are expected to gather in Banff Sept. 28-29 in an attempt to tackle the issue. Officials hope that pilot projects will be launched and mitigation measures will be tested and monitored for their effectiveness.

Officials will then issue a request for proposals in a bid to find solutions to this nagging problem. CP has offered $1-million to fund research over five years.

Environmentalist Ms. Elmeligi applauds the long-term thinking, but also issues a plea for the next three months before bears go into hibernation: “Do something on the tracks as soon as possible. Don’t put this off until next year.”

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