Male grizzlies and black bears are currently coming out of hibernation in Montana’s bear country, with female grizzlies and cubs likely to follow in April. Bear experts are hoping to help more of them survive the spring.
Last year, bear deaths stemming from human/bear interaction rocketed: The grizzly bear mortality in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem hit a new record of 31 fatalities, including the deaths of 18 females essential to the reproduction efforts of a species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
How to prevent bear deaths was one topic of discussion at the annual meeting of the Great Northern Environmental Stewardship Area (GNESA) Wednesday, March 16, in the West Glacier Community Center at Glacier National Park.
One key is reducing spillage from freight trains along railroad tracks in bear habitat. Last year, at least three bears were killed on Montana tracks, possibly searching for food from spills during a particularly poor huckleberry season.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) experienced a major corn spill near eastern Glacier’s Bear Creek in April of last year, and another large spill at Badrock Canyon east of Columbia Falls on Thanksgiving. The latter spill included a mixture of animal feed and birdseed in molasses that GNESA Director Dan Vincent deemed “a candy bar for bears.”
Unfortunately, the geography of Badrock Canyon made a complete cleanup of the spill impossible, says Lane Ross, a BNSF trainmaster in Whitefish.
“This site cannot take digging,” Ross says of the cliff and hillside above the river. “It’s just too steep. We have to balance the need to rid the area of grain with what you’d do to the river below.”
Instead, BNSF put up electric fences around the spill area last week, which they and wildlife managers hope will keep bears away from the tracks. Despite these and other efforts, train-related bear deaths aren’t likely to be eliminated, says John Mundinger, a former Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) biologist hired by BNSF to draft a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for bears along the railway corridor.
“The reality is the railroad is operating in an area that is saturated with bears,” Mundinger says.
The area is also becoming increasingly saturated with trains; between 36 and 42 trains travel the northwest Montana BNSF line daily, according to BNSF officials.
The HCP will seek to define an acceptable level of yearly train-related bear death, says Tim Manley, a grizzly bear management specialist with FWP, and a draft for public comment is expected this summer.
“If it’s feasible and not economically impossible, it can be looked at,” says BNSF Road Foreman Randy Wolff of possible prevention measures.
“The railroad has been good at getting people on the ground [to deal with spills], but there are some more proactive things we can do,” says Jim Williams, FWP wildlife manager in Kalispell.
One of those things, Williams says, is raising awareness among grain elevator personnel in other parts of the country that they need to clean spilled grain off the rooftops of trains that will be traveling through grizzly country.
“That would reduce both bear problems and pigeon problems,” Williams says, “but it’s got to be a campaign like ‘Smokey the Bear’ that people will get behind” to save bears’ lives.
Those unfamiliar with the behavioral patterns of bears might wonder why the animals don’t simply get out of the way of approaching trains.
Manley explains: “A bear can be busy digging for corn or something that’s dropped in between the tracks,” he says. “And you’d be surprised at how quiet those trains can be, especially if they’re coming downhill. There are also situations where a female will run across the tracks and her cubs will try to follow and wind up getting hit.”
Grain from trains is far from the only thing luring bears into contact with humans, however. Aside from the perennial threat caused by unsecured garbage, dog food and birdseed, Manley says he’s been called to deal with bears on almost every golf course in the Flathead Valley.
“Whenever you convert natural vegetation to fertilized grass with lots of water, there’s a lot of nutrition in that, so that’s why bears are showing up” on the fairways, he says.
Another issue is the availability of huckleberries, which may be sparse again this year due to ongoing drought conditions. If so, bears are likely to do what they did last year: travel to lower elevations in search of serviceberries, chokecherries and hawthorn berries.
Manley says 2004’s bear mortality rate was “double what’s normal,” but “normal” remains a murky term given that no reliable scientific data on the local grizzly bear population exists in terms of whether it is growing, shrinking or remaining static.
Manley says FWP will be ramping up its capturing and collaring of female grizzlies for population monitoring in conjunction with the historic grizzly bear DNA population study by the U.S. Geological Survey that began last spring.
Both studies seek data on whether the status of grizzlies has improved since the species was listed as threatened by the federal government in 1975. If so, bears could become delisted, Manley says.
“There’s been so much effort into managing grizzlies, but we’ve had no way to measure whether policies and regulations have been effective,” U.S. Geological Survey scientist and project leader Kate Kendall told the Independent at the DNA study’s onset.
In any case, Montanans are increasingly interacting with bears, and the bears are the worse for it; the grizzly mortality rate, for example, hasn’t been so high since a year before the species was listed as threatened. Once the science is in, wildlife experts may have a better idea whether this increased interaction is due to a revitalized bear population or a geographically sprawling human population—or both.