An impressive male grizzly bear has been foraging for food and travelling along the train tracks in Banff National Park, sparking fears his death is simply a matter of time.
Wildlife photographer Paul Kalra shot photographs from his car of a male grizzly bear, dubbed ‘The Boss’, on the Canadian Pacific Railway line around 5:30 p.m. on Monday (April 11).
It appears the bear – which officials suspect is conditioned to eating grain – is resting in the middle of the train tracks as well as looking for food.
Kalra said he fears this grizzly bear is going to end up hit and killed by a train.
“If you play Russian roulette, you don’t win,” he said. “He thinks he’s fast and smart, but I don’t think he’s smarter than a train.”
Conservationists are calling on Canadian Pacific Railway and Parks Canada to take all measures to ensure that vulnerable grizzly bears are not killed by trains in Canada’s premier national park.
They say immediate conservation steps would include slowing down trains, cleaning as much grain as possible from the tracks and using aversive conditioning to deter grizzlies from the right-of-way.
Jim Pissot, executive director of the WildCanada Conservation Alliance, fired off a letter this week to Parks Canada, politicians and CP officials, urging them to take immediate action.
He acknowledged CP has taken many positive steps, pointing to the use of a vacuum truck to remove spilled grain and a $1 million research program to look at immediate and longer-term measures to reduce bear deaths.
But, Pissot said, while repairs and research continues, the Bow Valley’s fragile grizzly bear population continues to face threats.
“I’m resigned to the fact that we’re not going to have a perfect world on the railway tracks in this park,” said Pissot. “But what frustrates me is we’ve seen nothing innovative, aggressive or effective that makes tomorrow any better than yesterday.”
There are believed to be about 60 grizzly bears in Banff National Park.
Since 2000, trains have killed 12 grizzly bears in Banff National Park, including 10 reproducing females. Without their mothers’ care, none of the five cubs orphaned by these railway deaths have survived to adulthood in the park.
Pissot said the death of 17 grizzlies is a “grisly record for Canada’s icon railway”, noting the death of a reproducing female could send the park’s grizzly bear population into decline.
Pissot said this huge and beautiful bear is comfortable on the CPR right-of-way and is finding springtime sustenance.
“Each day that goes by he’s at risk, and Paul’s pictures are so compelling,” he said. “I’m trembling right now because I fear for that bear.”
A Parks Canada report released in February shows trains continue to be the single biggest killer of grizzly bears in the mountain national parks.
According to the report, trains accounted for one-third of the 64 grizzly bear deaths in the mountain national parks between 1990 and 2009 alone.
Parks Canada officials say they continue to work with Canadian Pacific Railway to address the problem, pointing to the $1 million, five-year research plan to mitigate rail-related grizzly bear mortality in Banff.
They say this grizzly bear is probably using the train tracks as an easy travel corridor because there’s so much snow on the ground, but say he’s also likely conditioned to looking for grain on the tracks.
Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager for Banff National Park, said aversive conditioning and hazing is not really an option for habituated bears.
“We have tried aversive conditioning in the past and experience has told us that for bears familiar with the tracks like this one, and bears conditioned to finding food, any hazing efforts are short-lived,” he said.
“Because that bear is likely food conditioned for grain, any sort of hazing or aversive conditioning would have to be a 24/7 effort, and with that many kilometers of tracks, it’s not feasible.”
Hunt said resource conservation officers do go out and look for obvious grain spills and work with Canadian Pacific to get those cleaned up quickly.
“We also appreciate getting bear sightings reported to us so we can go out and have a look to make sure there’s no obvious food attractant, like grain or a dead carcass,” he said.
Canadian Pacific Railway officials say they are taking steps to help deal with grain on the tracks, such as putting out bins for grain collection at the end of March and having the vacuum truck ready to go.
“We do understand the sense of urgency around this issue every spring when the bears emerge,” said Breanne Feigel, a spokesperson for CPR.
Canadian Pacific Railway is nearing completion of its $20-million unloading gate replacement program for federally-owned grain hopper cars.
In addition, CP has provided $1 million for a joint program with Parks Canada to further explore grizzly behaviour and potential mitigating technologies and practices.
In the short-term, researchers will look at vegetation management, whistle zones and review opportunities for wildlife fencing and culverts in high-risk areas.
Through the new five-year research program with Parks Canada, other experiments may be used in a bid to dissuade grizzly bears from searching for grain on the tracks.
Feigel said CPR and Parks Canada are only seven months into this five-year action plan.
“We’ve been working throughout the winter to build an important framework that aims to look at effective ways to reduce mortality on the tracks,” she said.
“We’re on the brink of being able to share these details, and we do look forward to putting some of those measures in place in the summer.”
Bear sightings can be reported to Parks Canada at 403-762-1470.