MISSOULA — A few years after trains started killing more grizzly bears, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway has proposed a conservation plan to reduce the threat to wildlife. Environmental groups say it wouldn’t have happened without the threat of a lawsuit.
On Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced that BNSF had submitted a conservation plan to reduce the number of grizzly bears being hit by trains.
In exchange, the agency will propose on Tuesday to issue a take permit that would allow BNSF to accidentally kill 18 grizzly bears over seven years on the 206-mile run between Trego, south of Eureka in northwest Montana, and Shelby, east of Cut Bank.
Grizzly bears are protected under the Endangered Species Act, so any organization that anticipates its operations might kill a bear must get permission first from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Otherwise, it could be penalized. But in spite of 52 bears being hit by trains since 1980, this is the first time BNSF has applied.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking comment on the plan and permit for the next 30 days, claiming no more public process is required.
Trains take a toll on wildlife, especially when they pass through the more remote areas of northwestern Montana that still harbors a wide range of species. When 25 trains of about 100 cars roll daily through alpine valleys at up to 25 to 35 mph, there’s bound to be some carnage when animals don’t know to stay off the tracks.
As the grizzly bear population has grown in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem over the past few decades, more bears have died on the rail lines. The long-term average is two a year, but 2019 saw that spike to eight bears, including a sow and her two cubs.
Often bears are attracted to the tracks by either grain spilled from railcars or other dead wildlife.
At Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meetings over the past few years, wildlife advocates have repeatedly lobbied for agencies to do more to protect bears from being killed on highways and railways, in addition to all the other ways people kill bears.
Two environmental groups, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians, took another tack, notifying BNSF in October 2019 that they would sue the company if bears kept dying and BNSF didn’t do more to stop it.
“That was what spurred it, all those bear deaths in 2019,” said Josh Osher, Western Watersheds Project policy director.
For more than 15 years, BNSF has said it was working on a plan to protect grizzlies along its northern Montana railway.
According to the USFWS release, BNSF said it was collaborating with tribal, federal, state and local government agencies, conservation groups and industry to address and mitigate concerns about grizzly bear mortality due to railroad operations.
As a result, BNSF said it has created a rapid-response program for grain spills, the primary attractant for bears to railways, and expanded education of railway employees.
“The Habitat Conservation Plan represents years of local conservation collaboration among BNSF Railway, public agencies, tribes and local communities across northwest Montana,” said Jim Williams, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 1 supervisor in the USFWS release. “This plan will commit important funding that increases resources for on-the-ground conservation work. FWP is grateful that BNSF is supporting the future of grizzly bear recovery.”
The two environmental groups say it took their threat of a lawsuit to prompt BNSF to finally submit a conservation plan.
“We had some conversations with the BNSF attorneys and a little with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They had told us they were going to do it after we filed the (notice),” Osher said. “They claim they were already going to do it.”
The two groups said they were disappointed the USFWS wasn’t doing an environmental assessment or impact study of the BNSF plan and its permit. The agency decided there wouldn’t be “a significant effect on the human environment” so the plan and permit are excluded from further public process.
The groups are pleased that BNSF finally produced a plan but question the need to allow for the deaths of 18 bears.
“We think that’s definitely problematic. We were expecting it, but they should be doing at least an EA and probably an EIS,” Osher said. “The public should get the chance to weigh in, and there should have been a full suite of alternatives as opposed to just what the railroad company wants.”
Comments may be submitted electronically on www.regulations.gov by searching Docket Number: FWS–R6–ES–2019–0010. To mail comments, send to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. FWS–R6–ES–2019–0010, Division of Policy, Performance, and Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 5275 Leesburg Pike, ABHC-PPM; Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.