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Train speed plays big role in wildlife deaths

“You might ask how can such a big machine like a train be difficult to detect? But when trains are travelling downhill, they can be surprisingly quiet, especially if they are coming around corners."
Grizzly bear 122. Paul Kalra photo

BANFF – The speed of trains is one of the leading reasons behind wildlife deaths on the tracks through Banff and Yoho national parks.

That’s according to a new study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports on Nov. 25. Researchers examined 646 railway mortality incidents for 11 wildlife species, including 59 bears, over 24 years from 1995 to 2018.

Jesse Whittington, co-author of the study, said the two main factors affecting mortality rates for animals such as grizzly bears, wolves and elk was their ability to detect and escape from trains.

“You might ask how can such a big machine like a train be difficult to detect? But when trains are travelling downhill, they can be surprisingly quiet, especially if they are coming around corners,” said Whittington, who is also a Parks Canada wildlife ecologist in Banff National Park.

“We found animals were most likely to be killed in areas where trains could travel faster, and where there was high track curvature, so animals wouldn’t always be able to see trains coming from around the corner,” he added.

“That would trigger a startled response in some animals, where they don’t always make the best decisions; they simply run down the tracks because that’s the easiest and fastest route for them to travel.”

The study supports suggestions by other researchers that reducing train speed could be an effective mitigation, particularly in known hotspots where the track curves combined with other impediments to animal movement.

Aerin Jacob, a conservation scientist with Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative, said the results of this study are unequivocal – speed kills.

“That’s the bottom line – and then combined with the other factors too – far and away the clearest overall result is that speed kills,” she said, noting this paper used a large dataset over many years involving multiple species.

“It’s important to note that not only are these big animals, they also play important roles in the ecosystem; we’re talking about keystone species like wolves, and some species that are at-risk or that are sensitive.”

Canadian Pacific Railway did not address the speed of trains, but in an email statement indicated CP has worked with Parks Canada over the past decade to advance knowledge of how wildlife and the railway environment interact.

“CP has engaged with Parks Canada and the University of Alberta throughout this program to ensure the mitigation measures CP implemented were based on science,” wrote spokesperson Salem Woodrow.

The study also discovered that wildlife mortality was linked to the the ability of animals to get off the tracks.

Whittington said animals were more likely to be killed in areas by water, near steep and rugged topography and in areas with lots of dense shrubs.

“In those cases, animals have few options for getting off the track, and in some ways they’re trapped,” he said.

“Trains can travel quickly, there’s high track curvature, there’s lots of water, steep slopes, and dense shrub cover.”

The data also pinpoints hotspots for wildlife deaths, such as Five Mile Bridge near the eastern end of the Bow Valley Parkway west of the Banff townsite.

Seasonally, mortality rates were highest in late spring for bears.

Whittington said bears come out of hibernation hungry. With little food available, he said some head to the train tracks to eat grain, search for animal carcasses or find early vegetation by the tracks.

“But one of the things that happens through June is we receive our most rainfall,” he said.

“High water is a further limit for them in getting off the tracks – and can funnel their movements back onto the tracks.”

Elk, deer and moose and other carnivores such as wolves were more likely to die in winter. Over the course of 24 years of data used for the study, 560 deer, elk, moose and bighorn sheep were killed on the train tracks.

“Coming into winter, we expect to see some big snowfalls and when that happens you readily see elk and deer feeding along the railway tracks in Banff,” Whittington said.

“That’s because it’s harder for them to dig through the snow to find food to eat. For carnivores like wolves, the railway becomes a much easier way to travel across the landscape.”

A  joint study between Parks Canada, Canadian Pacific and the University of Alberta from 2012-16 investigated ways to reduce grizzly bear deaths on the train tracks.

Since then, Parks Canada has cut back dense shrubs and cleared deadfall to create 50 kilometres of wildlife travel routes away from the train tracks in Banff National Park.

Previous recommendations or experiments coming out of the joint study included fencing sections of the railway line, particularly in known hotspots where bears have died.

However, Whittington said that proved challenging.

“At this point we feel that the risks would outweigh the benefits; the main risks are to wildlife that get inside the fence where they’re trapped,” he said.

“We haven’t found a reliable method to prevent wildlife from travelling in from the ends of the fence. We’ve tried some electrified mats, but so far we haven’t found a system that will work in all seasons.”

While fencing along along the Trans-Canada Highway has proven effective in reducing wildlife collisions, Whittington said wildlife that get onto the wrong side of the fence are quickly reported.

“Visitors call Parks Canada and report those wildlife, so it’s easy for staff to drive out and shepherd that animal to the proper side of the fence,” he said.

“The railway has large tracts of inaccessible areas and we wouldn’t know an animal was inside the fence until it was too late.”

Installing early warning systems on the train tracks is still an option, but Parks Canada said that would be up to the railway giant.

“The advance warning system is something that’s still talked about; it would occur on the railway tracks,” Whittington said.

“It would be up to Canadian Pacific Railway to determine whether that’s an option they want to pursue.”

Y2Y’s Jacob said the next step is for Parks Canada, CP and scientists to work together to come up with short- and long-term solutions.

“What I want to see most of all – now that we have clear results – is collaboration among the partners to figure out how to put those results into meaningful action to reduce the number of animal deaths,” she said.

Jacob also points to how busy the Bow Valley is as a movement corridor for people and wildlife.

“In addition to the railway, we’ve got the highways, towns, ski hills, golf courses, all kinds of recreation,” she said.

“We need to be planning for all of these cumulative effects and ensuring that together we have a more positive future for people and for wildlife.”

Beyond more attention to the magnitude of wildlife deaths on railways, the study concluded a need to better understand their indirect effects on habitat loss, fragmentation and barriers, particularly for animals that are less charismatic and less studied.

Jacob said this is vital.

“This all about connectivity … Banff is protected and is Canada’s first national park, and yet we have this problem inside the national park,” she said.

“So protection is not the only thing to consider; we have to think about connectivity inside parks and between them.”