2014 has been a lethal year for black bears on the railroad tracks in Jasper National Park and one local resident wants to see something done about it.
Jasperite Kim Stark has witnessed wildlife on the tracks feeding on spilled grain. She said it’s unfair to the animals that more of an effort isn’t made to prevent and clean up the spills.
“It’s like they’re feeding from a trough,” she said. “I’m pretty upset by it.”
Nine black bears have been killed on the railroad in 2014, a significant jump from the last four years wherein a total of five black bears were hit and killed by trains on the CN right-of-way. Stark has written to CN asking what plans are in place to mitigate the threat of wildlife being killed on the tracks.
“This is not a new dilemma for CN, but it has climbed to a new level this year,” she said.
Resource Conservation Manager for Parks Canada, John Wilmshurst, confirmed the numbers. The most recent black bear death was on August 15 when a cub was struck and killed by a train.
In the past, CN has repaired up to 5,000 of its grain hopper cars. The company has also used a vacuum truck to clean up after the spills from the grain cars. However, CN only fixed its own hopper cars—not the multitude of cars owned by other shippers. Moreover, Wilmshurst said that grain vacuum hasn’t been used in Jasper this summer.
Stark says it’s easy to tell the machine is MIA.
“The results are obvious,” she said.
CN spokesperson Emily Hamer said via email that the company has a comprehensive response plan for grain spills.
“We have implemented a number of measures to mitigate these occurrences,” she said. “In the occurrence of a grain spill...any product that does spill will be cleaned up and removed in a timely fashion through contractors that CN retains for this special use.”
Despite being asked for more details, Hamer did not provide more information on the comprehensive plan.
Stark wasn’t appeased.
“I live right next to the tracks and have not seen [the comprehensive plan] in action to date,” she said.
In 2011, officials in Banff National Park and Canadian Pacific collaborated on a five year, $1 million study to mitigate grizzly bear deaths on the railway. They are experimenting with deterrents such as electric mats and fencing, as well as video monitoring. While the results are encouraging, the solutions might not be suited to Jasper.
“[Electric mats] can be effective, but we don’t have the same wildlife movements as Banff and Lake Louise has,” he said, referring to the fences along the Trans-Canada Highway which dictate the direction of wildlife movement.
Additional food sources along the tracks—dandelions, other animal carcasses—further complicate the issue. But to Stark, there’s a fairly simple way to bring the death toll down: reduce the amount of grain on the tracks.
“The animals are there for the food,” she said.
Exacerbating the issue this summer is the lack of traditional food sources for bears. Wilmshurst said this year’s high fatality numbers may be attributed to a buffalo berry crop failure; the berries typically comprise more than 75 per cent of a black bear’s diet this time of year, he said, and without those calories, the animals will be looking for alternative sources, including grain on the tracks.
“Because the berry crop seems to have failed in the montane we figure the bears will be bolder this year,” he said.
The crop failure could potentially mean more bears in town looking for fruit-bearing trees. For that reason, Wilmshurst is encouraging residents to harvest their fruit to lessen the chance of a conflict.
“Bears will be looking for opportunities,” he said.
And Stark, meanwhile, will be looking for action.