Joint Action Plan Research Projects

Grizzly Bear Movements through GPS Collaring
Environmental and Railway Factors and Mitigations for Rail-related Bear Mortality
Grizzly Bear Behavioural Responses to Trains
Fires, Forest Thinning and Bear Foods
Conditioned Taste Aversion
Fence End Trials

Photo Gallery

Grizzly Bear Movements through GPS Collaring

Researchers: Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific

Radio collar for a bear GPS Collar © Parks Canada

Objective: Researchers hope to maintain 10 to 12 GPS radio-collared grizzly bears in Banff and Yoho national parks over the course of this project. GPS radio collars provide insight into animal movement, habitat use patterns, and preferred habitat selection. In particular, researchers want to know where, when, and why grizzly bears use the railroad tracks, roads, and other disturbed areas.

Parks Canada will also use collar data to assess the likelihood of impacts from future development proposals upon the grizzly bear population, and to evaluate if mitigation and restoration actions have been effective at improving grizzly bear habitat.

Update 2014 : 2014 saw seven new bears collared, and two bears re-captured and collared. Combined with collars maintained from 2013, the end of the 2014 capture season concluded with 12 GPS collared grizzly bears “on the air” transmitting data.

Did you know? Most of our collars collect GPS locations and transmit data through the Iridium satellite network. There is usually a one to three day delay in data transmission. Balancing battery life with sufficient data transmission can be a challenge, so most collars are programmed to record a GPS location every two hours.

Environmental and Railway Factors and Mitigations for Rail-related Bear Mortality

Researchers: Dr. C. St. Clair and research team, University of Alberta

Mitigations for Rail-related Bear Mortality Mitigation for rail-related bear mortality © Parks Canada

Objectives: To better understand what factors may affect grizzly bear mortality along the railway, this project is addressing four main objectives: 

  • Why bears use the railway corridor (travel, grain, seasonal changes in food availability, vegetation, pinch points, movement). 
  • What environmental factors (track curvature, visibility, sound transmission, time of day, time of year, and adjacent movement options) affect risk of mortality when bears are on the tracks. 
  • How environmental factors (grain, vegetation, movement efficiency topography (slope, distance to curves), and human related factors (impact of highway fencing) interact with bear behaviour to influence mortality risk. 
  • What methods can be used to alert bears to oncoming trains and to deter bears from using the rail line.

Update 2014: Researchers have shared some of their initial findings: 

  • Individual bears, perhaps based on age and/or gender, differ in the way they use the rail corridor. Railway use has been found to peak in spring and in fall. 
  • It appears that grain is not the only thing, and may not be the main thing, that determines whether or not bears use the rail line instead of a different travel route. The seasonal availability of natural plant foods along the forest edge may also be a factor determining bear travel routes. 
  • The main natural bear food in the Bow Valley—buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis)—appears to have a complex relationship of its own with the railway. The key tool used to study this is time-lapse cameras. Researchers analyze time-lapse photos of buffaloberry shrubs taken throughout the spring, summer and fall to determine productivity of the plant and how the railway corridor influences the berry crop. 
  • Researchers are trying to determine how bears detect on-coming trains. There may be differences based on environmental factors like topography. To understand the various factors affecting a bear’s ability to detect a train, researchers are attempting to emulate a bear’s sense of hearing and study their sense of vision, particularly at night.

Behavioural Responses to Trains

Researchers: B. Burley, Dr. R. Cartar, Dr. D. Draper, Parks Canada & University of Calgary

View from the front of a train Mile 127 © Parks Canada

Bears exhibit a variety of responses to trains. For example, some bears leave the railroad tracks when they first see a train, others leave the tracks at the last minute, and some, when startled by trains, flee down the tracks.

Objective: This project used engine-mounted “Go Pro” video cameras to evaluate bear reactions to on-coming trains.

  • What factors contribute to specific behavioural responses (e.g. previous experience, when bears first detect trains, sight lines, track curvature, adjacent topography, train lights), and 
  • What mitigations could be implemented to influence bear reactions so that collisions with approaching trains are reduced.

Fires, Forest Thinning, and Bear Foods

Researchers: C. McLellan, J. Park, and Dr. S. Nielsen, Parks Canada and University of Alberta

Smoke from a forest fire Fire has the potential to create habitat © Parks Canada

Grizzly bears in Banff National Park have some of the lowest reproductive rates in North America relative to other grizzly bear populations because of low quality habitat; nearly 50% of the mountain national parks are composed of rock and ice. As a result, bears are known to forage on or near the railroad when few high quality natural foods are available elsewhere.

Objective: Fire (natural and prescribed burns) and forest thinning have potential to create high quality habitat that could draw bears away from the railroad tracks. This project looks at how the following disturbance agents and landscape factors influence the amount and quality of grizzly bear foods: 

  • fire severity (depth which heat from a fire affects the soil) 
  • thinning prescriptions (tree removal, either mechanically or by hand, to reduce available forest fuels) 
  • forest type and age 
  • topography 
  • forest regeneration

Update 2014: Initial findings indicate that grizzly bears chose recently burned habitat (fires occurring between1960-2012) over comparable unburned habitat, particularly in the fall season. As well, preferred bear foods, including buffaloberry, sweet vetch (Hedysarum), dandelions, clover, and ants occurred in greater densities in burned areas than in comparable unburned areas.

Conditioned Taste Aversion 

Researcher: L. Holmstol, Cascade Environmental Research

Conditioned taste aversion test site Conditioned taste aversion test site © Parks Canada

Although 6,300 federal government grain cars have been refurbished to reduce the amount of grain deposited on the railroad tracks, grain spills remain an attractive food source for bears within the rail corridor. One potential solution is to reduce the appeal of grain through conditioned taste aversion with hopes of decreasing the amount of time bears spend on the railway.

Objective: To identify a low-cost method to discourage bears from feeding on grain by creating a negative experience when they do it. In this case grain was systematically combined with Thiabendazol, a fungicide/parasitide which induces feelings of nausea. Once the treated grain was made available, researchers assessed whether bears decreased the amount of grain they consumed, and therefore spent less time on the railway.

Results: Completed in 2012 in Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks, results found that bears could differentiate between treated and untreated samples of grain, so Thiabendazol was not effective at creating an aversion to grain.

Fence End Trials – Electrified Mats

Researchers: Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific

Bear runs across an electromat Electrified mat © Parks Canada

Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific are looking at the feasibility of fencing high-risk sections of the railway as a way to reduce train-caused wildlife mortality. If feasible, the proposed fencing would be installed along sections of the railway known to have higher numbers of train/bear collision incidents, while leaving relatively safer sections of the railway corridor open for travel and forage.

Objective: This project aims to test the effectiveness of technologies that would deter wildlife from entering a fenced-in corridor and is being tested away from the railway for safety reasons.

What’s being tested? Electrified mats are mats made of rubber embedded with metal bars or wire capable of carrying an electrical current. Designed to deliver an uncomfortable sensation upon contact, the mats use low amperage current to minimize the potential harmful effects on wildlife and people. Combined with electrified fencing, these mitigations are being tested at safe, remote locations that can inform researchers whether this might be a potential solution in the future.

This research project is testing electrified mats at two off-site locations in Banff and Yoho national parks. At these sites, Canadian Pacific collaborated with Parks Canada to build a 10 meter imitation section of railroad that enters a fenced enclosure. Bait placed within the enclosure provides a strong attraction for bears and other carnivores to cross the electrified mat. Remote cameras record animal responses and can inform the potential successes and limitations of this technology.

Update 2014: A mock section of fenced rail line was built so researchers could test the effectiveness of electrified mats combined with electric fencing. Testing occurred in three phases:

  • Phase 1: The electrified mats were not activated while bears and other carnivores were attracted into the enclosure with meat as bait. This confirmed that animals would enter the enclosure before deterrents were used.
  • Phase 2: The electrified mats were turned on. Remote camera footage confirmed that bears and other carnivores were deterred from crossing the electrified mats, despite the bait attractant available in the enclosure. The electrified mat was quite successful at deterring carnivores, but in winter, snow and ice insulated the mat so shocks were not delivered under these circumstances.
  • Phase 3: A few industrious bears have climbed the fence to gain access to the bait. In order to eliminate animals climbing fenced sections of the railway, the fence enclosure was hot-wired, using technology similar to electric fences used for livestock. The electric fences are currently being tested.

It is hoped that by adding deterrents like electric fencing, the enclosure will completely exclude bears and other wildlife from high risk areas on the railway tracks.

Next Steps: Next phases of this project will further evaluate the effectiveness of electrified mats in winter conditions when snow is continually removed through a heat source.

Did you know? Electricity used to power the electrified mats, the electric fencing and the monitoring cameras is provided through solar power.