Grizzly bear with two cubs at Olive Lake in Kootenay National Park
Bears need to move! Within their home ranges, grizzly bears seek out seasonal foods, mates, den sites, travel routes and female bears may also be trying to raise cubs. Human use in prime habitat can complicate how bears make a living.

Like all species, bears need habitat that provides for their daily and seasonal needs. Within their home ranges, grizzly bears seek out seasonal foods, mates, den sites, and travel routes. Females need secure areas to give birth and raise offspring. Within the mountain park landscape, suitable available habitat is hard to find. The best quality habitat for bears and other wildlife is along major valley bottoms; often where humans and associated development can be found. Human use in prime habitat complicates how bears make a living.

In recent years, the railway has been identified as one of the largest sources of human-caused grizzly bear mortality in Banff and Yoho national parks, the railway is a challenge that is being addressed through a five-year Joint Action Plan initiated between Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific Railway. This initiative is an important step towards building mutual understanding and exploring science-based solutions.

Joint Action Plan Research Projects

In 2010, Canadian Pacific and Parks Canada signed a five-year Joint Action Plan aimed at reducing grizzly bear mortality on the rail line in Banff and Yoho national parks. This includes a $1 million grant from CP to support research to improve our understanding of the causes of bear-train collisions. This research will help identify potential solutions to reduce grizzly bear mortality along the rail line.

After a rigorous review of research proposals, research teams from the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, supported by experts from Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific, have been conducting the following research projects that will help inform short and long-term solutions to reduce grizzly bear-train collisions. 

  • Grizzly Bear Movements through GPS Collaring :
    Parks Canada wildlife experts are capturing grizzly bears, attaching GPS collars, and monitoring the bears’ fine-scale habitat use and movements relative to railway, roads, and other factors. The GPS data are provided to the other research teams, to enable their in-depth analyses. 
  • Environmental and Railway Factors and Mitigations for Rail-related Bear Mortality :
    Bringing together multiple researchers from the University of Alberta, the core goals of this project aims to improve our understanding of why bears use the rail corridor, what factors might affect mortality risk, and what methods might deter bears from using the rail corridor. 
  • Grizzly Bear Behavioural Responses to Trains :
    Using “Go Pro” video cameras mounted on the front of trains, this project aims to determine what factors might contribute to specific bear behaviour in response to oncoming trains.
  • Fires, Forest Thinning and Bear Foods :
    Looking for solutions that may exist beyond the rail corridor, this project is evaluating how vegetation management through prescribed fire and forest thinning may enhance grizzly bear habitat. 
  • Conditioned Taste Aversion :
    Testing the theory that bears may spend less time on the railway if they have a negative experience eating grain, this project tests the effectiveness of treating grain samples with a substance that induces nausea. 
  • Fence End Trials : 
    Electrified Mats: Fencing select high-risk sections of the railway may be a solution to reduce wildlife mortality on the railway, but researchers first need to evaluate whether a combination of electrified mats and electric fencing would effectively prevent wildlife from entering the opening for the train to pass through at the fence ends. Research is being done on a mock section of railway at secure sites away from the railway.

In Harm’s Way: What Attracts Bears to the Tracks?

For grizzly bears to meet their needs for food, space, and mates, they are often on the move, using all available habitat, including places used by humans. So what is it about the railroad tracks that is so appealing to bears? 

  • Grain and Unnatural Attractants: Grizzly bears in the Central Rockies are constantly on the search for food, and rely on certain foods to put on enough fat to make it through the winter. High energy food such as spilled grain and carcasses of animals killed on the tracks are especially strong attractants to bears looking to bulk up. 
  • Natural Forage: The sunny openings created by transportation corridors and rights-of-way support a variety of native and non-native plant foods attractive to bears, such as berries, dandelions and grasses. These plants along the right-of-ways usually ripen or green up first, providing additional attractive food resources earlier than the surrounding forest. 
  • Movement Corridor: Bears are just like us—they will take the path of least resistance when they can. By traveling along the rail line and right-of-way rather than through rough or forested terrain, bears conserve energy. Also, in some cases, the placement of highway wildlife crossing structures may unintentionally guide wildlife to travel in the area around the rail line.

Why do bears stay in harm’s way when trains approach?

This is one of the questions being addressed by research. What we do know is that in addition to attractants, site characteristics (such as curving tracks, raised tracks, surrounding landscape features, vegetation features, and train speed, and even a bear’s physiology) may affect a bear’s ability to detect oncoming trains and successfully escape. 

Grizzly bear foraging for grain on the railway tracks
The relationship between bears and the railway is complex. Despite the potential risk, the railway can provide sources of food and an efficient corridor for bears to travel throughout their extensive ranges.