Wildlife advocates say they are planning to sue BNSF railroad unless it comes up with a solid plan to keep its trains from hitting and killing grizzly bears.
So far this year, trains allegedly are responsible for at least eight grizzly bear deaths in Montana, according to Pete Frost, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. He filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue BNSF on behalf of the WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project, according to a Monday news release.
The groups add that the “best available data” show that between 1980 and 2018, trains along the BNSF route in northern Montana and Idaho killed or contributed to the death of around 52 grizzly bears from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
“The 67-mile stretch of railway between West Glacier and Browning is where trains reportedly killed 29 grizzlies between 1980 and 2002,” Frost said. “Slowing the trains down, ensuring carrion are promptly cleared from tracks, and perhaps scheduling trains to run during the day and not at feeding time might reduce trains killing grizzlies.”
Grizzly bears are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Frost said when a company’s activities kill threatened species, they’re legally required to propose solutions in a Habitat Conservation Plan that can lead to an “incidental take” permit.
Frost added that BNSF said it’s been working on the plan for more than 15 years, but one hasn’t materialized.
“That would set out how it thinks it can run the railroad to stop killing grizzlies,” Frost said. “Then the public can chime in and say whether it’s a good idea or not. In the meantime, BNSF can’t keep killing grizzlies.”
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Maia LaSalle, a BNSF spokesperson, said the Habitat Conservation Plan and Incidental Take Permit are in the final stages of review before being published for public comment. The plan is being developed with the help of bear managers and wildlife specialists from the U.S. Fish, and Wildlife Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the Blackfeet Nation.
They’re also working on reducing the number of bear strikes, LaSalle said.
“For more than 20 years, BNSF has worked to reduce the number of grizzly bears struck by trains on the BNSF operated right-of-way by instituting mandatory reporting of grizzly strikes by train crews and protocols for removing grain, carrion , vegetation and other attractant from the track structure,” LaSalle wrote in an email to the Missoulian. “BNSF continues to work, along with its partners … to reduce the number of bear strikes.”
But Sarah McMillan, conservation director at WildEarth Guardian, argued that BNSF has “twiddled its thumbs for 15 year rather than taking essential measures to protect grizzly bears.” About one train an hour uses the railways in Montana, averaging about 35 mph.
“This neglect, that has such lethal impact on protected bears, is simply unacceptable,” McMillan said in a news release.
Josh Osher, the Montana director for the Western Watersheds Project, added that the grizzly bear deaths are preventable and there’s no excuse for BNSF failing to safeguard the railroad from lethal collisions.
“Whether it’s a lack of concern, laziness or just plain greed, it’s time for BNSF to be held accountable and to take immediate steps to stop further killings.”