Being a Bear in Banff
An estimated 60 grizzly bears live in Banff National Park. Making a living can be challenging for these bears, given that 50% of the park is comprised of unsuitable habitat for grizzlies (rock and ice). Furthermore, Banff National Park is the most intensively used national park in North America, welcoming more than three million visitors annually, hosting two thriving townsites, and three major ski areas, and serving as a major highway and rail corridor. While development is capped in Banff National Park, development pressures continue in areas surrounding the national park, which can pose a challenge to wildlife that are at risk of losing habitat or becoming habituated to unnatural food sources
The reproductive rate of female grizzlies in Banff National Park is the lowest in the world (tied with female bears living along the Bering Strait in Alaska). On average, female grizzlies have cubs every 4.5-5 years, and begin reproducing later in life than bears in other locations.
Bears in Banff are omnivores and do not have a heavy protein diet like bears living on the west coast.
The combination of high human use in the park and distribution of people in the montane (most valuable area nutritionally) results in chronic interaction with people, which puts bears at an increased mortality risk.
Grizzly bears living in Banff National Park are more susceptible than grizzly populations in other locations as they currently live along the edge of their natural range. This range is continually contracting.
Most bears are wary of people and take advantage of good habitat, particularly where they don't have to interact with other bears. This can bring younger bears to fill in an open niche on the outskirts of townsite development, increasing the potential for bears to run into people.
A portion of the bear population in Banff National Park is food-conditioned to grain (an unnatural food source) found along the rail line. This learned behaviour cannot be undone without reducing the food source significantly.
Canadian Pacific Railroad and Parks Canada are working to reduce train-grizzly bear collisions
Canadian Pacific Railway and Parks Canada are working together to reduce the probability of grizzly bear (Ursus arctos)/train collisions. Based on records kept for the past 20 years, grizzly bears are killed most commonly on railroads in Canada's mountain national parks (Banff, Yoho, Jasper, Waterton Lakes, Mt. Revelstoke and Glacier). Although train-grizzly bear kills are only slightly more common than vehicle kills (Figure 1), park roads out distance railroads by 4 to1. This has lead biologists and railroad employees to ask why railroads are so dangerous for bears.
For more than 20 years, both organizations have collected baseline data to increase their understanding of the problem. They have tracked the number and causes of deaths for grizzly bears and other species since the 1990s. The early stages of data collection revealed bears were consuming grain leaked from hopper cars.
Designed to measure the amount of grain spilled on the tracks, the first grain monitoring project began in 2006. In 2007 a maintenance overhaul of the federal grain hopper car fleet began. In the past four years, this program has upgraded more than 5,000 grain cars. As a result, grain spill has decreased by 61% between 2008 and 2010 in Banff and Yoho national parks (Figure 2). Canadian Pacific is continuing its work to reduce grain spill through continued repair and grain car inspection. Maintenance employees are also working to clean spills when they occur with a vacuum truck.
Despite these improvements, numerous bears have learned to forage along the tracks and use the railroad to travel within the park. In 2009, Parks Canada biologists began measuring the amount of time bears spent on the railroad to estimate the effectiveness of future mitigations designed to deter bears from the tracks. They found bears spent the most time on the tracks in early spring when little other food was available. Bears were found to use the railroad the most in locations with higher grain accumulations; but this was not where they were most commonly struck by trains. A graduate student from Montana State University used this information to identify risky zones for bears. The same student also identified railroad design features correlated with mortality risk.
Based on what Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific have learned so far, they have committed to further understanding the root causes of bear-train collisions and developing solutions to discourage bears from using high mortality risk zones. A number of promising solutions will be tested this summer, including a spike mat aimed at passively deterring bears from moving on or across the railroad. Other solutions and exclusionary fencing are also under development. These solutions will be tested and refined for implementation implemented if proven effective. Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific are working to test the efficacy and safety of proposed mitigations. Much work is needed to devise solutions that will not cause derailment, present other safety hazards for rail operations, people and wildlife. These solutions are components of a larger joint research plan and mitigation strategy. A final strategy will be finalized in October 2011, after international and academic expert review.
Figure 1. Relative amounts of human caused grizzly bear mortalities in the Mountain National Parks between 1990 and 2010. Data are shown as percent of total (n=52) by causal factor see parks report: Bertch and Gibeau 2010 for full details.
Figure 2. The median grams of grain spilled per day on one linear foot of the Canadian Pacific Railroad through Banff and Yoho ational Parks, estimated as grams per day for each year. Grain was collected during the entire year from ten locations every four days. See parks report: Dorsey 2011 for full details and methods.