No-Crossing Zones

New technology keeps bears out of harm’s way

At 8:45 on an October night in 2012, two yearling grizzly bears prowling the railroad tracks in Banff National Park were struck and killed by an oncoming train. In Banff, death on the rails is all too common: while the park has famously addressed its roadkill problem by fencing off the Trans-Canada Highway and constructing overpasses for wildlife, trainkill since 2000 has claimed the lives of 13 grizzlies along with numerous black bears, wolves, elk, and other animals.

Now researchers are testing a promising solution: electrified mats that straddle the rails and deliver a painful shock to any animal that treads on the tracks. Scientists rolled out the electromats, which are powered by onsite solar panels, at two sites in 2013; according to Parks Canada biologist David Gummer, “one hundred percent of the animals that have visited the sites have been repelled successfully.” For one grizzly, says Gummer, the shock it received from the first electromat proved such a powerful deterrent that it didn’t even attempt to traverse the other one. Black bears, wolves, wolverines, and coyotes have also been turned away.

The electromats are one prong of a five-year study funded by Canadian Pacific Railway and aimed at reducing wildlife fatalities caused by trains in Banff. While Gummer studies the efficacy of electromats, Brianna Burley, a human-wildlife conflict specialist with Parks Canada, has affixed GoPro cameras to trains in order to examine the variables—the proximity to the nearest curve, for instance—that cause some encounters between bears and trains to end in disaster. By identifying problem spots, park managers may be able to strategically place electromats and short stretches of electric fencing—as well as other preventive measures such as alarms or signs warning engineers to blow their whistles—along especially dangerous sections of track. Other scientists are figuring out ways to reduce the spillage of grain from railway cars—one of the attractants that draws wildlife to the railroad.

“But the problem is more nuanced than just keeping bears off the rails altogether,” says Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a biologist at the University of Alberta. Not only would fencing off the entire railroad be prohibitively expensive, St. Clair cautions; it would also keep bears away from convenient travel corridors and cut them off from food sources (such as buffaloberries and dandelions) that flourish along the rails. Rather the idea is simply to create no-crossing zones on the deadliest stretches of track.

—Ben Goldfarb

This story has been funded in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

Photo ©Paul Kalra


1 Comment

  • Lou November 27, 2014 at 6:49 am

    While electromats isn’t the worse idea…why not have Canadian Pacific Railway (or any other railway company’s tracks) COMBINE it with designing a railcar with a vacuum. Just like those powerful suction machines the oil and gas industries have been using for decades on trucks???? If they actually have one, why is there so much leftover product to attract wildlife, poor SOP’s in place. A supervisor that doesn’t understand the term “litter”.

    Why are railway car seals so poor that grain/product can leak out??? What pathetic preventative maintenance plans, if any, do railway companies have in place???

    Google “Bear 128’s Mother”…Young Bear 128 was killed on the highway, his mother was killed by a train, due to a railway car grain spill/leak.

    Perhaps if a clean up of a spill isn’t done properly, fine the railway company enough that it will be in their best interests to do the clean up properly and completely.
    A large percentage of wildlife deaths are caused by spilled product, such as grain, from railcars that the railway company is too lazy to clean up PROPERLY. No food source, a lot less wildlife staying on the tracks…one heck of a concept I know. Yes, wildlife do use railway tracks for travel through THEIR territory because the railway company created this unnaturally clear and easy commute corridor. Since the railway company created it, isn’t it their responsibility to ensure it is not a danger to our national flora & fauna?

    There should be no “grandfathering clause” here about railways being exempt because it was built before wildlife populations numbers were an issue. After all, if I created a mode of transportation today that had detrimental effects to injuring/killing wildlife, I would be charged by law…so why aren’t the railway company’s being charged? All about the dollar?


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