A mother grizzly bear and her three cubs were killed by a CP Rail train after being caught on a bridge east of Elko in early October, sparking discussions of a possible need for warning systems along tracks.
The female grizzly, which was one of many bears collared as part of a study on grizzly bear movements in the area, had been first captured and tagged in 2019, and sighted by researchers as recently as this past Spring.
Clayton Lamb, a local wildlife scientist with the University of British Columbia that had been tracking the bear (called EVGF97 - Elk Valley Grizzly Female No. 97), described her as “a healthy female in the prime of her life.”
EVGF97 had proven unique in the Elk Valley, as the first female bear tracked locally to have had three cubs, rather than the typical two.
“She was unique in that aspect, and seemed to be doing quite well for herself.”
On Oct. 6 she and her cubs were killed on a rail bridge to the east of Elko in the early hours, with CP Rail reporting the incident to authorities, and Lamb receiving an alert that she had died from the collar she was wearing as part of the study.
Lamb said that the mortality rate for grizzly bears in the Elk Valley is high given the characteristics of the area, funnelling wildlife and human traffic through a high-quality habitat.
Around one-third of grizzly bears in the Elk Valley die from road and rail collisions, partially due to the geograghy of the area with road and railway nestlted tightly in a productive habitat, according to Lamb.
“Another thing that draws them towards the railway is other animals that get hit, so deer and elk – bears feed on what was already struck and can get hit themselves, and there’s this chain reaction of mortality.”
EVGF97 and her cubs were unlikely to have been crossing the bridge on their own and were likely scared onto the bridge, unable to outrun the train after it came around a bend.
Despite the high density of bears in the area, the mortality rate of grizzly bears was so high in the Elk Valley that the local population was unable to sustain itself, with more bears dying or being killed than bears being born, Lamb said.
“So what that means is the Elk Valley grizzly population is supported by dispersing animals from some of the more remote areas that are productive bear habitat adjacent to the valley – places like the Flathead or Bull River, or even Kananaskis country in Alberta.”
The number of grizzly bears killed locally due to human interaction is already very high for 2021. Lamb estimates it could end up being close to double the average of four to five grizzly bears per year.
There are many challenges to limiting bear fatalities, especially around trains.
“We don’t quite have a grasp on how many animals get killed on the railway each year. Railway collisions are held cryptically and its very hard to get the data. Even as someone who’s worked with agencies around North America, I have never seen the data on collisions,” Lamb said.
In Banff, trials of early warning systems for wildlife are being carried out – a possible solution locally.
“Letting them know a train is coming before they’re in that fight or flight situation – even a couple of seconds of lead time – will get them off the rails safely.”
Lamb said it was at least worth trying out locally, as well, especially given it’s not only bears dying on railway tracks, but also elk, deer, sheep and moose.
Lamb suggested building wildlife crossings on highways and working harder to limit human-bear conflicts in populated areas by bear-proofing garbage and organic waste in neigbhourhoods to reduce bear moralities.