Grizzly Cub Dies After Being Hit by Train Near Columbia Falls

At least three bears have died in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in the last month

By Justin Franz
Grizzly bear. Google Advanced Images

A male grizzly cub was struck and killed by a train near Columbia Falls last week, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks reports.

According to a press release, the bear was killed near North Hilltop Road, east of Halfmoon Road, on Nov. 8. BNSF Railway employees reported the incident to wildlife officials and investigators from FWP responded to the scene. Investigators did not find any evidence of attractants at the site of the collision, and it appears that no other bears were involved with the incident.

The male cub is one of three grizzly bears to have died in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem in the last month. Two adult females died near the Hungry Horse Reservoir, one near Sullivan Creek and another near Wildcat Creek. Both bears were wearing GPS radio collars that notified FWP officials of their deaths. Both bears died of natural causes.

Trains hitting bears have long been a problem in Northwest Montana, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s, when a series of derailments left spilled grain along the right-of-way that attracted bears. In the 1990s, BNSF predecessor Burlington Northern teamed up with FWP, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and other stakeholders to create the Great Northern Environmental Stewardship Area in an effort to reduce the number of train-related fatalities. The railroad increased its efforts to pick up spilled grain and to reduce vegetation along the tracks that might attract the animals.

Further north, in Banff and Yoho National Parks, Parks Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railway and researchers at the University of Alberta and University of Calgary teamed up to find a way to reduce bear fatalities after a sudden increase in the early 2000s. From 2000 to 2015, at least one bear was killed every year on the tracks along the British Columbia-Alberta border, a stark contract to the previous 15 years when no bears were killed.

Researchers believed the increase in bear fatalities was because of grain spilled along the railroad right-of-way and possibly an increase in visitation that may have forced bears to look for more secluded travel routes, including the train tracks. Backed with $2 million from the Canadian Pacific and the Canadian government, researchers created a warning system that works like the signals at road crossings. When a train approaches a spot popular with bears, a small box attached to the rail warns the animals with flashing lights and a bell sound. Researchers say the 2016 tests were promising but the warning devises have not yet been implemented.

This year, 48 grizzly bear mortalities have been identified in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem due to a variety of circumstances, including management action, collisions with vehicles and natural deaths. Bears are classified as mortalities if they die, are taken to an accredited zoo or research facility, are euthanized or are moved to another ecosystem.

There are approximately 1,000 grizzly bears in Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, a bear recovery zone that includes Glacier National Park, parts of the Flathead and Blackfeet Indian Reservations, parts of five national forests and a significant amount of state and private lands.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Nov. 26 to note that spilled grain also attracted bears in Canada. 

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