Two young grizzly bears have been struck and killed on the train tracks in Banff National Park.
Canadian Pacific Railway engineers reported hitting the bears around 8:45 p.m. on Friday (Oct. 5) near Muleshoe, about 10 kilometres west of the Banff townsite.
Just days before, the two yearlings had returned to the busy Bow Valley with their mother, known as No. 130, from the remote Cascade Valley where they have spent much of the summer.
“This is very disappointing for staff, particularly this year with coming to know several of these bears on more of an individual level because of the collaring project,” said Steve Michel, a human-wildlife conflict specialist.
When Parks Canada staff located the carcasses of the bears at first light Saturday morning, one was determined to be a male yearling, while the other was in too many pieces to be able to determine its sex.
Michel said staff did not initially know the status of the mother bear because she was bedded down fairly close to her dead yearlings and was not moving around.
“There was concern for her for the first 12 to 14 hours that she may have been injured or killed, but as it turned out she wasn’t and she’s completely healthy,” he said.
“She was within a couple of hundred metres and that makes sense based on the nature of the incident. She was remaining nearby to where her yearlings were killed.”
Bear 130, like other grizzlies, did use the train tracks in spring as a travel corridor to move through the Bow Valley. She has also been recorded using the overpasses and underpasses to cross the Trans-Canada Highway.
Michel said he would not describe 130 as a food-conditioned bear that actively searches for food and grain along the train tracks as some of the other grizzlies in the area do.
“Have they been regularly using the train tracks? No. Were they lingering there? No. This is not a bear I would describe as a food-conditioned bear on the tracks foraging for grain,” he said.
“I suspect the fact that she doesn’t spend a lot of time on the railway tracks may even have been a factor in this incident because she may not be as accustomed to trains as some other bears who forage for grain.”
Based on data downloaded from bear 130’s GPS collar, staff know she’s been using habitat along the Bow Valley Parkway and has travelled as far west as Castle Mountain with her yearlings.
Like many other grizzlies, 130 spent much of the summer in Cascade Valley and in the Flints Park area, feasting on a great buffalo berry crop there, before returning last week.
Michel said she also frequents high use areas around the Banff townsite, in similar locations to that of grizzly bear 64, the 23-year-old matriarch of the Bow Valley.
“Her behaviour is different to bear 64. She’s what I would describe as more shy, more reclusive and she’s not as visible as 64,” Michel said.
“She certainly passes through the edges of the townsite, but it tends to be more in the early morning or late evening.”
Michel said he does not know for sure, but estimates bear 130 is around 10 to 12 years old.
“I guess from that standpoint I’m optimistic she’s still got opportunities to produce several litters of cubs,” he said. “I would think she’ll probably breed next spring and might have cubs in 2014.”
Trains are the single biggest killer of grizzly bears in Banff National Park. There have been 13 confirmed grizzly bear mortalities on the tracks since 2000, including eight over the last six years.
In addition, there was a grizzly killed on the tracks in Yoho National Park last November and two other grizzly mortalities on the tracks, just outside the park, near Canmore in 2009.
As a result of these deaths, there have been a total of eight orphaned cubs. One, possibly two, have survived and are now two-and-a-half-years-old and in the Lake Louise area.
“We do know for sure the other six are no longer in the ecosystem, either confirmed dead or translocated out of the park,” Michel said.
Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific are working together on a $1 million, five-year joint research program to determine effective ways of reducing mortality along the tracks.
Under the research, Parks Canada and CP are supporting the work of academic teams toward identification of root causes of bear train collisions, ultimately leading to development of mitigations to reduce bear train collisions.
Earlier this year, 11 bears were fitted with GPS collars and five younger bears were fitted with ear transmitters so wildlife experts can track their movements.
Other projects underway include vegetation clearing, investigation of off-site enhancements like fire to draw bears away from tracks, grain taste aversion trial and the use of video to determine bear behaviour ahead of oncoming trains.
The plan also speaks to the development of test fences at certain hot spots.
A study using bear DNA collected from rub trees hair traps, which was released earlier this summer, shows the Bow Valley’s grizzly bear population may be in decline. The study, led by biologist Mike Sawaya, suggested, though did not confirm, that the Bow Valley may act as an attractive sink for grizzly bears in the Central Canadian Rockies Mountains.
Officials with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) say they are saddened by the deaths of the two young bears, saying everyone was hopeful this would be the year with no grizzly bear deaths in the Banff area.
“I know from a biological standpoint it’s about the reproducing females, but I get sad when we lose yearlings because that’s the next generation of bears,” said Sarah Elmeligi, senior conservation planner CPAWS.
“When you lose the next generation before they have an opportunity to reproduce, then it’s really sad. Things like this take away from overall efforts to recover grizzly bears in Alberta.”
Elmeligi said the deaths of the bears highlights the ongoing urgency to come up with solutions to deal with bear mortality on the railway tracks.
“I feel CP and Parks are working hard to try to solve the problem, but the reality is it’s going to take a couple of years to test the different mitigative actions on the tracks and see which ones work best,” she said.