Intoxicated Grizzly Bears In Montana Are Being Killed By Trains

Montana’s official state animal is the grizzly bear and roughly 300 of the threatened species call Glacier National Park home. The bears roam freely in search of food, and some have discovered food in a dangerous area that is leading to their untimely deaths.

Grizzlies are strong, large, and surprisingly fast – reaching speeds up to 35 mph. However, their strength and quickness are diminished when they consume fermented grain found along the train tracks.

The bears become drunk and are unable to move or outrun the trains and are tragically killed.

The Issue

Grain being transported by train along the “treacherous stretch of rail line” near the park has killed dozens of grizzlies after it falls out of the railcars and lures in hungry bears.

Retired federal ecologist Chuck Neal of Cody shared with Cowboy State Daily that the moisture from the snow and rain causes the fermentation, “The spilled grain actually ferments in place and becomes a de facto brewery.”

Bears have even fallen asleep on the train tracks in a drunken stupor and are too intoxicated to get out of the way when a train approaches.

Photo: Pixabay/ArthurTopham

The threat is real and ongoing.

Bears continue to die

Cowboy State Daily states, “Since 1980, 63 bears have been killed along a stretch of rail line that goes over Marias Pass and the Great Bear Wilderness”.

While vehicle collisions involving grizzlies occur in and around several parks, train collisions only occur near Glacier Park and in some areas in Canada near Banff National Park.

Three Montana grizzlies have been killed by trains this year alone. In September, a 25-year-old male grizzly was found dead beside the tracks.

Neal went on to share that Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail company is not doing enough to protect the bears.

“BNSF have been stalling doing anything for some years believing that the grizzly is going to be delisted (from endangered species status), another reason I am against delisting, and they will not have to come up with some type of plan that will give them an ‘incidental take’ permit from USFWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).”

There have been a few suggested ideas. One was to install a warning system to make noise when the train approaches, but due to the bear’s drunken state this may not help. Another was to not load the train cars so full of grain and reduce the amount of spillage as well as to not travel during certain weather to prevent derailment. However, BNSF is not on board with these suggestions.

Neal concluded with, “So right now, the last word that I have is that not much has been done at all and the bears continue to die.”

Photo: Pixabay/Klaus Stebani

In 2021, BNSF proposed a Habitat Conservation Plan as a solution which involves hiring more grizzly bear technicians, electric fencing, and more with their $2 million contribution in exchange for a Incidental Take Permit for the grizzlies killed by trains. Neither the plan nor the permit have taken effect.

“I don’t understand what the holdup is,” Gerald “Buzz” Cobell, director of the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department, told the Independent Record. “I think BNSF is dragging its feet and the Fish and Wildlife Service is letting them do it. The tribe is anxiously awaiting this funding to make up for some of the grizzly bear losses that are occurring on the railroad tracks running through the reservation. As a tribe, we’re doing our best to minimize grizzly bear mortality and our feet are held to the fire whenever there’s a death. But I guess if you’re BNSF you get a free pass.”

Canada may have found solutions that work…

What Canada Is Doing To Protect Grizzlies

Train strikes are one of the leading causes of death among grizzly bears between Banff and Yoho National Parks. Since 2000, 17 bears have been killed, reports CBS News: The National.

One male grizzly named “the Boss” survived a train strike, but this is not usually the case.

Canada is taking steps to protect the vital and iconic bears with “Bear Warning Systems” placed on hot spots along the tracks where animals have been struck and killed. They emit a warning sound and flashing light 30 seconds before a train comes, hopefully alerting the bear or other animal and giving them time to flee the area.

Researchers and conservationists came together to find out why bears were being drawn to the track. They discovered that some were coming for the spilled grain, so they have a vacuum truck that goes along the rail and picks up grain when there is a large spill.

But that’s not all. The parks are doing several things to deter bears from the train tracks. Learn more here and by watching the video below.

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