Advocates secure new railroad proposal for grizzlies

For immediate release: January 11, 2021

Contacts:

Sarah McMillan, WildEarth Guardians, 406-549-3895, smcmillan@wildearthguardians.org

Josh Osher, Western Watersheds Project, 406-830-3099, josh@westernwatersheds.org

 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that Burlington Northern Railway Company (BNSF) plans to take actions to protect grizzly bears in northern Montana from its trains. Since 1980, trains have killed or contributed to the deaths of approximately 52 grizzlies. Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, prompted negotiations when they notified BNSF they would sue the company over its activities that killed the iconic Montana bears, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Now, BNSF has finally completed a habitat conservation plan to seek to reduce these conflicts.

When a company’s activities kill threatened species like grizzly bears, it is required to propose solutions in a habitat conservation plan that may lead to an incidental take permit. For more than 15 years, BNSF said it was “working on” a plan for grizzlies along its northern Montana railway, but one never materialized. Now, the company has proposed that plan, which the advocates hope will provide additional protections including:

  • A rapid-response protocol to clear train right-of-way of any spilled grain, animal carcasses, or other things that might attract grizzlies,
  • Inspecting grain hopper cars at loading to prevent leaks, 
  • Considering time of day and train speeds on 206 miles of track, especially in places with steep slopes without apparent escape routes,
  • Using lights and whistles on trestles to warn grizzlies, and
  • An opportunity to update these changes after collecting more data.

The Service will now consider issuing an incidental “take” permit to regulate 206 miles of BNSF’s railway in northern Montana, which crosses the southern border of Glacier National Park. In 2019 alone, trains killed or contributed to the killing of eight grizzly bears that are part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

“Over 70% of grizzly bear deaths in this region of Montana are human-caused, and if the bear is ever to truly recover, we must significantly reduce that terrible statistic,” said Sarah McMillan, Conservation Director of WildEarth Guardians in Missoula. “We’re hopeful that BNSF’s grizzly bear habitat conservation plan will reflect new dedication to its responsibility to reduce the grizzly bear death toll after 15 years of inaction.” 

Approximately 1.2-1.5 BNSF trains per hour run on these railways in Montana, averaging 35 miles per hour. There is a slight increase in train frequency at twilight, when grizzly bears often feed, increasing the danger to bears. In a recent example, a train killed two grizzly cubs near Whitefish. In addition, five grizzly bears died in late 2019 near East Glacier Park as a result of railway activities. A train struck and killed a cow, which then attracted five bears to the tracks. In five separate incidents, two died in train collisions and three were killed by cars on Highway 2. 

“BNSF trains have taken a significant toll on grizzly bears throughout the years which could have been prevented by enacting common-sense measures to reduce collisions,” said Josh Osher, Policy Director for Western Watersheds Project. “ We hope that BSNF’s plan will be sufficient to protect the bears, be put into effect quickly and be faithfully enforced.”

Today’s announcement provides hope that grizzly-saving precautions from BNSF could be on the way. The advocacy groups that prompted these changes look forward to adding real protections to better increase the safety of threatened grizzly bears near train tracks that bisect their territory.

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