Trains fitted with video through the Rockies

By: Cathy Ellis

  |  Posted: Thursday, Feb 28, 2013 06:00 am

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GoPro cameras are used by skiers, surfers, mountain bikers, kayakers and paragliders to record their adventures – they’ve even been used to film inside the mouths of alligators, sharks and polar bears.

And now that same technology is being used to try and figure out why so many grizzly bears are being hit and killed by trains in Banff and Yoho national parks.

Officials say 15 mini video cameras are mounted on the front on trains to record how bears react and what they are doing – including if they are feasting on spilled grain – when a train hurtles towards them.

Brianna Burley, a resource conservation specialist in Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay, said the overall goal is to explain, from a behavioural perspective, what bears are doing as a train approaches that leads to either their death or escape, and if their location could influence this behaviour.

“I’m looking at bear behaviour and looking at how bears interact with trains, and if a behavioural reaction to a train may have more to do with various sites,” said Burley, who is also a master’s student in geography and biology with the University of Calgary.

“Then I am going into the field to look at those sites where these behavioural interactions took place to see if there’s anything I can determine may have affected the animal’s behaviour.”

Burley’s research is under the supervision of the University of Calgary’s Dr. Ralph Cartar and Dr. Dianne Draper. It’s part of the joint $1 million Parks Canada-Canadian Pacific Railway plan to reduce grizzly bear mortality.

The train tracks are the single biggest source of human-caused grizzly bear mortality in the mountain national parks, killing more than 10 in Banff National Park over the last decade. There’s about 60 bears in the park.

The last recorded railway mortality in Banff involved two young yearlings in October last year, who were struck and killed by a train about 10 kilometres west of the Banff townsite.

The young grizzlies had just returned to the busy Bow Valley with their mother, known as bear No. 130, from the remote Cascade Valley where they had spent most of the summer.

The long-term conservation of grizzly bears in the mountain national parks is considered vital, particularly given the population on neighbouring provincial lands in Alberta, with less than 700, is threatened.

Burley said the video cameras first went up last July and she was able to get out for her first season of fieldwork last summer, with the cameras recording 30 animal observations.

But this year she is hoping to get more valuable data because the cameras will be on the trains in April as bears come out of hibernation and head to lower elevations in search of food, including grain on the tracks.

Male grizzlies in Banff typically begin emerging from their dens in the first couple of weeks in March, with females and their young ones coming out a little later in spring.

Of last year’s 30 recorded animal observations on the train tracks from the video cameras, 23 were black bears and three were grizzly bears. The remaining four were ungulates.

Burley’s research aims to determine if bears are more likely to be killed by a train if there is spilled grain on the tracks or a rich food source available nearby.

As well, she is trying to figure out if escape routes could be compromised by natural terrain, such as steep slopes, or by human infrastructure like bridges.

Burley said she is studying whether bears are more likely to be killed if opportunities to detect a train are poor; for example, if the train is fast moving, or there’s poor longitudinal visibility along the tracks.

Lastly, she said, she hopes the video camera footage and her fieldwork will determine if a bear’s initial fleeing behaviour will affect the outcome – whether the bear is struck or killed.

Burley said it is far too early to draw any conclusions based on her research, but hopes the results will help inform decisions about how to reduce and hopefully eliminate unnecessary bear deaths on and along the tracks.

“I hope that what we learn from those interactions will help with future mitigations on the railways,” said Burley.

Other projects on the go as part of the joint Parks Canada-Canadian Pacific action plan includes putting GPS collars on 11 grizzlies last spring so their movements can be closely monitored.

Other studies underway include vegetation clearing, investigation of off-site enhancements like fire to draw bears away from tracks, and a grain taste aversion trial.

The plan also speaks to the development of test fences at certain hot spots.


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