For decades, the freight trains trundling over Marias Pass toward Glacier National Park and the Great Bear Wilderness have posed a threat to the grizzlies living there, particularly when a derailment causes a grain spill, or a train-killed deer or livestock carcass draws the bears onto the busy tracks.
And for decades, a host of state, federal and tribal wildlife management agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations and conservation groups, have worked with the railroad in an effort to mitigate the hazards to threatened species like grizzlies, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
This week, however, BNSF Railway Company proposed the most comprehensive solution yet when it formally submitted a Habitat Conservation Plan to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), outlining measures to reduce train-caused grizzly mortalities in the region and committing more than $2 million in funding to related grizzly bear conservation projects and programs over the seven-year life of the plan.
Developed over the course of years and based on extensive consultation with bear experts from FWS, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), the Blackfeet Nation, and Glacier National Park, the plan will be administered by the Montana Outdoor Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works closely with FWP on conservation efforts throughout the state.
“This is amazing news for grizzly bear conservation in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and beyond,” Jim Williams, FWP’s Region 1 supervisor, said. “I’ve been fortunate to have been involved with this from the beginning and have watched as these partnerships evolved and the pieces fell into place. These projects are unique and they do take time, but this is going to fund some really important grizzly bear work.”
Since 1991, BNSF has collaborated with a diverse roster of agencies to address and mitigate concerns about grizzly bear mortality due to railroad operations in the region. The efforts include a $1 million program to remove attractants from the right-of-way and install deterrents in high-risk areas. BNSF also implemented a rapid-response program for grain spills, the primary attractant for bears to railways, and expanded education of railway employees.
“BNSF has supported grizzly bear recovery efforts for more than 20 years in partnership with wildlife agencies, and it is thanks to the efforts of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Blackfeet Nation and many others that the grizzly bear population is growing in Montana,” John Lovenburg, BNSF’s environmental vice president, said. “BNSF is grateful for their efforts, and we believe the Habitat Conservation Plan will further help to protect grizzly bears in Montana.”
Before a plan is finalized, the public can review a proposed Incidental Take Permit (ITP), which BNSF submitted along with its Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to formalize the grizzly bear conservation efforts.
If issued, the permit would authorize the take of approximately 18 grizzly bears incidental to BNSF Railway operations during a seven-year period on 206 miles of railway between Shelby and Trego. The permit would acknowledge that BNSF has done everything in its power to mitigate unavoidable hits, and allows them to fund other proactive work to offset the mortalities.
The HCP also proposes additional financial support for personnel, equipment and education to reduce human-bear conflicts.
The funding would support salaries and operations for three additional FWP and Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department bear managers; the development of a database to track grizzly bear movements and mortalities; the installation of bear-proof waste containers and transfer stations; the installation of fencing and other human-bear conflict mitigation tools; and bear education opportunities for people who live and recreate in bear country.
Gerald “Buzz” Cobell, director of the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department, said his agency has been involved in the development of the HCP since 1991 and applauded BNSF for honoring its commitment to grizzly bears and other wildlife.
“The Blackfeet Nation plays a vital role in the Northern Continental Divide Grizzly Bear Ecosystem and we look forward to the addition of a bear technician to augment our critically important bear management program,” Cobell said. “We look forward to working … to reduce the potential for train-caused mortality and human-caused mortality of grizzly bears in the railway right-of-way.”
The HCP also creates a technical committee, which includes the wildlife experts who helped develop BNSF’s strategy. The committee will include representatives from BNSF, Amtrak, FWS, FWP, Glacier National Park, and the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department.
According to Ben Conard, an FWS supervisor based in Creston, the technical committee will review the work conducted by BNSF, offer recommendations on how to adapt the plan to changes in the environment, and report annually to FWS on work being done pursuant outlined in the plan.
The BNSF application is currently being reviewed by FWS, which will issue its decision on the application following a public review. That document, the application and the plan will be available for public review and comment in the Federal Register beginning Jan. 12.
According to data tracking bear deaths from 1980-2019, trains along BNSF railway corridors killed or contributed to the deaths of approximately 60 grizzly bears from the NCDE, a distinct population that has grown to include more than 1,000 bears living in Northwest Montana, including Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
In 2019, for example, eight grizzly bears were killed as the result of railway activities, the most in a single year on record, while dozens more were removed from the recovering population through management actions, the result of bears killing livestock or getting into human food.
Following the train-related deaths in 2019, wildlife advocacy groups threatened to sue BNSF Railway for its role in train collisions killing grizzly bears.
On Monday, representatives of those same groups voiced support for the proposed move to furnish greater protections on grizzlies along the railway corridor.
“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.”