During snowstorm, there was a rash of grizzly deaths

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A grizzly bear in a berry patch in the Great Bear Wilderness in this file photo. Bears often travel across the BNSF tracks moving from the Great Bear to Glacier National Park.

Five grizzly bears were killed earlier this month near East Glacier Park as the result of a train first hitting a cow, which, in turn, attracted bears to the area.

Details of the incident weren’t completely available by presstime, but on Oct. 1, an Amtrak train struck and killed a grizzly on the tracks and then on Oct. 6 a second bear was killed by a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway freight train.

But three other bears were also killed in car collisions Highway 2 as they were reportedly attracted to the dead cows.

Complicating matters was that the area was seeing a major snowstorm that dropped as much as 4 feet of snow.

The railroad acknowledged that two bears were killed by train collisions.

“BNSF frequently inspects the track in this area and observable carrion is promptly removed, depending on weather and safe access to the site. Unusual weather, including rapid snow accumulation, and terrain prevented BNSF employees from locating and removing cow carcasses on the right-of-way the first week of October,” railroad spokeswoman Maia LaSalle said in an email response to the Hungry Horse News. “We removed one cow carcass on Oct. 6 after it was reported to us by Tribal representatives. At this time, we have two confirmed bear strikes. Amtrak struck the first on Oct. 1, BNSF struck the second on Oct. 6. BNSF reported both strikes promptly.”

Tribal representatives did not respond to calls for comment, though sources have indicated that the tribe may be building a case against the railroad.

The railroad and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife have been in talks over a habitat conservation plan for more than 15 years, but one has never been completed. The plan sets the parameters for how the railroad would conserve grizzly habitat in the future near the tracks, like building crossing structures and other deterrents to keep bears and other wildlife off the tracks. The plan also allows for “take” of bears, in essence, protecting the railroad if it accidentally hits a bear.

The railroad said a plan is close.

“BNSF and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are in the final stages of preparing a habitat conservation plan. We hope to have that plan available for public comment soon,” Lasalle said.

Grizzly-train collisions are not uncommon in the corridor. The tracks are the southern boundary to Glacier National Park from Bear Creek to the Blackfeet Tribal boundary and run close to the park the remainder of its southern boundary.

Since 2009, 15 grizzlies have been killed by trains, including six this year alone, according to figures provided by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

While many bear managers say grizzlies are a recovered species, they’re still currently listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and thus still afforded federal protections.

As of presstime, 34 grizzlies have been killed by human means this year in the region. The five grizzly deaths in this one incident would amount to about 14 percent of the total deaths to date.

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