The Wild Side, Part Five
By Margaret Munro
BANFF, ALTA. _ The craggy peaks of the Rocky Mountains dominate the landscape, the turquoise waters of the Bow River sparkle in the afternoon sun. But Colleen Cassady St. Clair is not here for the view. She is getting a feel for the increasingly constrained life of grizzlies in Banff National Park.
The University of Alberta biologist and her graduate student Benjamin Dorsey take off their boots, roll up their pants and step barefoot onto an electrified mat straddling the Canadian Pacific Railway track. They jump right back off, yelping as a jolt runs up their legs.
“Just what we’re after – intense, fleeting pain,” says Cassady St. Clair.
A specialist in human-wildlife conflict, she is game to try almost anything to help animals co-exist with people — even if it entails a bit of short-term discomfort for the grizzlies in Canada’s premiere national park.
Wildlife conflicts don’t get much more dramatic, or intractable, than the one involving the iconic bears, an iconic company, and Canada’s most iconic park.
Kris McCleary, a science adviser at Parks Canada, says rail tracks are the number 1 source of mortality for grizzlies in the park.
The bears are habituated to feeding on grain that spills out of railcars hauling wheat, canola and lentils from the prairies to the port in Vancouver. Twelve grizzlies have been mowed down on the tracks in Banff and nearby Yoho National Park since 2000, 10 of them since 2005.
“It’s clearly a big problem,” says McCleary, and one that she and her colleagues say defies easy solution.
CP has spent $20 million to reduce what was once a banquet of grain served up by leaking railcars, including dispatching a vacuum truck to suck up any spills spotted on the tracks.
But the bears are still drawn to the railway. With their super-sensitive noses, they can smell the grain that falls between the ballast on the tracks. And they will root around to get every kernel they can, says Cassady St. Clair, who leads the research team CP and Parks Canada funded this year as part of its five-year action plan to try reduce bear-train collisions.
In Whistler, B.C., Cassady St. Clair and her students used whistles and slingshots to teach bears to avoid people. They’ve used “aversion” conditioning on elk near Edmonton. And they’re hoping to teach Banff’s bears to avoid trains with bells, “electro-mats” and other behaviour modification techniques.
The situation in Banff is unique with a small, isolated population of grizzlies living in a landscape carved up by the TransCanada Highway and the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks and visited by three million humans a year. But wildlife experts say it highlights the incredible challenge of co-existing with one of the most powerful and feared creatures on the planet.
Grizzlies used to roam much of Europe and North America but have steadily been eliminated from more than half their range in the last century.
In Canada, grizzlies once roamed from Manitoba west, but they are long gone from the prairies and many populations in Alberta and southern B.C. are declining, according to a recent report from COSEWIC, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
Canada still has about 26,000 bears, one of the biggest populations in the world. But the threats in B.C., Alberta and from ongoing and escalating extraction of minerals and energy in the north “are cause for concern,” says COSEWIC, which has recommended Environment Minister Peter Kent list the grizzly as an animal of “special concern” under the Species at Risk Act.
“It’s all about cumulative impacts,” says Justina Ray, co-chair of COSEWIC’s group on terrestrial mammals.
While grizzlies are no longer shot on sight, she says populations typically decline when humans move in and fragment their habitat, building roads and communities, opening mines or extracting oil and gas.
“That’s what you’re seeing in southern B.C. and most of Alberta where grizzly bears have lost ground, and that’s what you’re seeing in Banff,” says Ray, executive director and senior scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, a non-profit.
Parks Canada has spent tens of millions of dollars in Banff to get wildlife off the TransCanada Highway, installing fencing and constructing overpasses and underpasses that bears and other animals have learned to use to get over — or under — the road.
And almost all of the 6,300 leaking federal grain cars have been repaired or replaced over the last five years, says Ken Roberge, manager of CP’s environmental development program. Surveys of the tracks in Banff show the spillage has been cut 60 to 80 per cent since 2008.
“One of the frustrating things is we’ve spent $20 million and still not solved the problem,” says Roberge.
He believes that part of the reason is that Banff’s grizzlies, which have one of lowest known reproduction rates for bears, are “food stressed.”
“Banff is 50 per cent rock and ice and they have to get by on berries, roots, and the odd ground squirrel or elk,” says Roberge.
The scarcity of other foods makes the grain “a big draw,” he said, as he strolled beside the railway on a recent afternoon, the odd canola and wheat plant sprouting up along the tracks.
Roberge said the highway fencing and overpasses may have contributed to increased mortality on tracks seen in the last decade. There is a lot less roadkill around for bears to eat, he says, and some of highway overpasses appear to be “funnelling” bears onto the railway.
Asked about the possibility of fencing the track, he says it would cost “multiple millions.” And there would be big problems if bears found their way onto the wrong side of the fencing.
“We don’t want to create a tunnel of death,” says Roberge.
Cassady St. Clair believes there are better options.
It’s clear grizzlies know how to avoid trains. About 30 trains a day go through the park and only rarely is a bear hit.
“Loco-cams” mounted on the trains have captured video of several collisions, which the researchers are reviewing for clues of what goes wrong.
One shows a sow trying to herd her two cubs off the tracks. “She trips and falls,” says Dorsey. Others show bears in panic mood, some running onto the track as they try to flee.
In the most recent death in Yoho in November, Dorsey says the male bear had been eating grain at a spot where the tracks cuts past rock walls on both sides.
The bear’s tracks in the snow showed how it started to run, Dorsey says, “but the train caught up to it after about 15 metres.”
“Perhaps it’s just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Cassady St. Clair. But some sections of track are more lethal than others, which suggests there is something more going on, she says.
One “hot spot” is at Five-Mile Bridge where several bears have died.
Traffic on the TransCanada streams across the huge concrete bridge over the Bow River and trains appear almost every hour, the ground shaking and wheels squealing as they sweep under the bridge. The sound of the trains and traffic ricocheting off the bridge and a nearby rock outcropping may make it hard for bears to hear, Cassady St. Clair says after a kilometre-long freight train roars past en route to Calgary.
The researchers have recording devices on nearby trees to a get a read on the acoustics.
“We’re trying to take a bear’s perspective,” says Cassady St. Clair.
Her team is also trying to find out what drives the bears as they move through the park.
Parks Canada conservation officers captured and fitted 11 bears with tracking collars this spring, the most ambitious collaring program in Banff in more than a decade. The collars, which transmit the bears’ location every two hours, shows grizzlies can be scrambling across glaciers one day and strolling down the tracks the next.
A female with young crossed an icefield, says Dorsey, who is surprised to see the bears spending so much time in “extreme” locations.
In one remarkable journey, a male, known as bear #126, covered 22.5 kilometres and climbed to an elevation of 2,838 metres, well above the treeline, in just five hours.
“A trip like that in that terrain would trash most athletes,” says Dorsey. But after making the climb the bear covered another 65 kilometres in just 48 hours.
Where possible the researchers follow in the grizzlies’ footsteps to see what they’ve been up to — eating buffalo berries in the Bow River valley, digging up roots in the alpine, flipping over stumps in the forest.
Females with cubs use the tracks more, perhaps to avoid aggressive males that tend to head up the mountain when the snow melts, says Cassady St. Clair, who is exploring several ways to try modify the bears’ behaviour.
The strategically placed electro mats are aimed at preventing them from walking down the tracks into the town of Lake Louise; bells or whistles could help alert bears to oncoming trains at Five-Mile Bridge: and she says it may be possible to lure grizzlies away from the tracks by creating a more convenient travel corridor for them through valley bottom, and restoring or creating more habitat where they’d prefer to forage.
The researchers are also exploring whether the bears can be put off railway grain altogether. In one experiment they will bait tracks with chemically treated grain designed to make them feel ill, much like a wicked hangover, she says
Activist Jim Pissot, of the WildCanada Conservation Alliance, has spent years documenting how Banff’s grizzlies have been dying on the tracks. He applauds the way CP, Parks Canada and the researchers are tackling the issue in Banff. But he believes there needs to be plenty more human behaviour modification.
While the federal grain cars have been repaired, he says there are still many leaking railcars in use. At loading facilities on the prairies grain is often spilled on the sills and surfaces of rail cars that is then carried into the mountains, where bears have been known to climb up on cars to lick up the grain.
CP and Parks Canada have tried to tackle the loading issue but the problem persists in part because there are so many groups and organizations involved in moving grain.
“Everyone can blame everyone else for the problem,” says Pissot.
He stresses that bear-train collisions are also occurring beyond the park boundaries. It’s also a problem down the CP line, he says, and on Canadian National tracks running through Jasper, the CP railway cutting across southern Alberta and B.C. and the Burlington Northern Railroad in the U.S.