Wildlife advocates have notified Burlington Northern Railway Company (BNSF) of their intent to sue the business over its role in trains in Montana killing numerous grizzly bears, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. In the most recent and sad example, a train recently killed two grizzly cubs near Whitefish. In addition, five grizzly bears died earlier this month 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.
This year alone, trains have killed at least eight grizzlies in Montana.
“While Burlington Northern has twiddled its thumbs for 15 years rather than taking essential measures to protect grizzly bears, trains have killed dozens of grizzlies, including at least four cubs,” said Sarah McMillan, Conservation Director at WildEarth Guardians. “This neglect, that has such lethal impact on protected bears, is simply unacceptable.”
The lawsuit targets Burlington Northern’s railroad across northern Montana, which runs from eastern Montana, just south of Glacier National Park, and into Idaho. The best available data show that from 1980-2018, trains along its railways killed or contributed to the deaths of approximately 52 grizzly bears from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
Approximately 1.2-1.5 BNSF trains run per hour 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.
“The 67-mile stretch of railway between West Glacier and Browning is where trains reportedly killed 29 grizzlies between 1980 and 2002,” said Pete Frost, attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “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.”
“The deaths of these grizzly bears and cubs was entirely preventable and there is no excuse for BNSF’s continued failure to safeguard the railroad from these lethal collisions,” said Josh Osher, Montana Director for Western Watersheds Project. “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.”
When a company’s activities kill threatened species like the grizzly bear, it is legally required to propose solutions in a habitat conservation plan that then can lead to an incidental take permit. For more than 15 years, Burlington Northern has said it is working on a habitat conservation plan for grizzlies along its northern Montana train route, but one has never materialized.