Yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced the availability of Burlington Northern Railway Company’s (BNSF) application for an “incidental take permit” (ITP) that would allow the company to lawfully kill up to 18 federally protected grizzly bears during the course of the next seven years. The FWS proposes granting this grizzly bear-killing permit to BNSF through a “categorical exclusion” to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which means little environmental analysis and limited public input and participation on this proposed permit.
BNSF operates 206 miles of railway in key grizzly habitat known as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE), crossing multiple national forests and along the southern border of Glacier National Park. The application, which includes a “habitat conservation plan” (HCP), fails to propose any measures to change train operating schedules or speeds, which potentially prevent the deaths of grizzlies from trains and would allow BNSF to continue its operations as usual.
“WildEarth Guardians is extremely disappointed that, after all these years, BNSF has completely disregarded any proposed changes to business practices that could prevent the unnecessary deaths of Montana’s iconic grizzlies,” said Sarah McMillan, conservation director of WildEarth Guardians in Missoula, Montana. “When a company chooses to operate in the middle of key habitat for a threatened species, it must have some responsibility to adapt practices to protect these animals. We cannot allow the government to give BNSF a free pass on grizzly bear slaughter simply because it believes the life of 18 grizzly bears are worth less than its profit margins.”
While trains have killed or contributed to the deaths of approximately 52 grizzlies since 1980, this application marks the first time BNSF has sought such a permit, despite provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) requiring that a company does so when it kills even one individual of a federally protected species like grizzlies.
“BNSF has been operating with impunity for decades and dozens of grizzly bears have paid the ultimate price for their inaction,” said Josh Osher, policy director for Western Watersheds Project. “Instead of adopting common-sense measures like reducing speed of trains or operating trains at different hours of the day, BNSF just seeks permission from the federal government to continue its standard operating practices, putting business profits ahead of wildlife”
For the past 15 years, BNSF has stated it was working on a plan for grizzlies along its northern Montana railway, but one never materialized. WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, prompted negotiations when they notified BNSF they would sue the company over its activities that routinely kill grizzly bears. While BNSF has finally completed its application and HCP, the plan fails to provide key mitigation strategies sought by conservationists.
The proposed HCP included in BNSF’s application provides minor mitigation measures, such as addressing the cleaning up of grain spillage and providing fencing for livestock to avoid train track crossings, but ignores substantial changes to business practices long sought by conservationists.
The majority of the HCP mitigation program seeks to modify human behavior in other areas of the NCDE by conducting activities like hosting public education fairs for hunters and the public at large, and providing funding for waste management programs, to offset grizzly bears deaths that BNSF knows will continue to happen as a result of its train operations.
Approximately 1.2-1.5 BNSF trains per hour run on these railways in Montana, averaging 35 miles per hour. There is a slight increase in train frequency at twilight, when grizzly bears often feed, increasing the danger to bears. In one example, a train killed two grizzly cubs near Whitefish. In addition, five grizzly bears died in late 2019 near East Glacier Park as a result of railway activities. A train struck and killed a cow, which then attracted five bears to the tracks. In five separate incidents, two died in train collisions and three were killed by cars on Highway 2.
FWS noted in its publication that it had concluded the activities proposed by the ITP application would have a low impact on the species and the environment, and determined that the application was thus “categorically excluded” from further environmental analysis. Without such a conclusion, the federal government would have a legal obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act to consider the environmental impact of the proposed application.
“It is truly ludicrous for the agency in charge of protecting endangered and threatened species to simply ‘categorically exclude’ the certain deaths of grizzly bears in this manner,” said McMillan. “WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project are prepared to use whatever legal and political advocacy necessary to ensure that this application is dead on arrival.”