Lawsuit looms over train-caused grizzly deaths

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Photographer Larry Youmans recently captured this sow and her cubs from a safe distance strolling on a ridge in Glacier National Park. NOTE: DO NOT REUSE. WE DO NOT OWN COPYRIGHT.

Two environmental groups have filed a 60 day notice of intent to sue Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and the Department of Interior, claiming that too many bears are being killed by trains, a violation of the Endangered Species Act.

According to an Oct. 19 letter sent by the Western Environmental Law Center on behalf of WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project, trains have directly caused or resulted in the deaths of 52 grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem since 1980.

This year has been a particularly bad year for bear-train collisions. To date, nine bears have been killed in train related deaths in Montana, including a particular violent incident in early October where trains initially killed cows on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation during a snowstorm. The bears were then attracted to the carcasses and at least two were hit directly by trains and another was found dead.

Two others were hit by vehicles as they tried to cross Highway 2 to get to the dead cows.

Separately, two more bears were killed after they were hit by trains near Trego. In that case, the bears were actually reported by Forest Service employees, not BNSF, even though a train was reportedly sitting over a bear when biologists went on the scene to investigate.

Over the years, the letter notes, from 1997-2013, trains caused 9 percent of reported grizzly deaths in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which has roughly 1,000 bears.

The NCDE is an 8 million acre swath of land that runs along the Continental Divide. BNSF tracks essentially cut the ecosystem in two. Erik Molvar of the Western Watersheds Project said the hope is the letter will prompt the railroad to take corrective action.

A Habitat Conservation Plan — a formal plan on how the railroad plans to address grizzly bear issues along its tracks, has been in the works for years, but never finished. It could set the parameters for fencing and other structures that would keep the bears and other animals off the tracks.

“The (railroad) has dragged its feet in creating a plan to minimize (grizzly bear) losses,” Molvar claimed. “Hopefully (this action) will give railroad the incentive they need” to formalize a plan.

The railroad earlier this month claimed a plan will be released soon.

While most biologists agree that as a whole, grizzly bears in the NCDE are a recovered species, the courts have found that until the bears can migrate to other areas where there are few, if any, grizzlies, the recovery is not complete.

The problem with trains, the letter notes, is that train traffic ramps up to as many 1.75 trains per hour at night, when bears are active.

There’s still also problems with grain spillage from trains. The letter notes that a study by David Mattson done this year found that train deaths occur the most at two times of the year — in May, when vegetation near the tracks is greening up faster than surrounding areas, and then again in the fall in September and October, when bears are looking to put on that winter fat and trains are hauling grain across the state to ports on the West Coast.

The railroad claimed it is taking steps to address the problem.

“As the grizzly bear population recovers and grows, BNSF is committed to working diligently to minimize the potential for bear strikes on the rail. BNSF has long-standing partnerships with the Blackfeet Nation, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We work closely with these partners to address the conflicts created by the growing range and population of grizzly bears,” the company said in a statement. “BNSF modified its vegetation management practices, improved the identification and cleanup of spilled grain, and expanded its carrion removal practices. Since beginning this work, there have been many years where no bears have been hit on the tracks. BNSF has undertaken this project voluntarily, with guidance and input from bear managers from Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and the Blackfeet Nation, and with the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

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