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

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