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Wildlife groups sue BNSF for grizzlies being killed by trains without safety measures

The groups say 63 grizzlies have been killed on 206 miles of BNSF track in northern Montana.
grizzly bear
Posted at 8:51 AM, Dec 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-18 10:51:51-05

Wildlife groups aren’t sure what is worse: That trains have killed more than 63 grizzly bears in northern Montana since 2018, or that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad has seemed to ignore requests to help alleviate the problem.

So two groups, WildEarth Guardians and Western Watershed Project, have sued BNSF Railway for ignoring the Endangered Species Act as well as failing to take actions to lessen the number of grizzly bears killed on railways, The Daily Montanan reports.

BNSF officials did not return messages when contacted on Thursday afternoon.

Of particular interest is the BNSF rail line, which runs from Shelby, Montana, to Sandpoint, Idaho, across the federally designated Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes the Cabinet-Yaak range. That’s 206 miles of track that BNSF uses or leases to other companies and runs through both national forests as well as the southern border of Glacier National Park.

BNSF has applied for years to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which can authorize “incidental take” permits that would exempt the railroad from penalty for trains that strike bears. But in a lawsuit filed in federal district court in Missoula on Thursday, attorneys for the environmental organizations argue that the federal government has never issued the permits, and therefore the grizzly bears that have been killed have been illegal.

“None of these habitat conservation plans nor incidental take permits has been finalized,” the plaintiffs allege.

The lawsuit traces the origin of the conflict to 2018 and 2019 as the railroad began applying for incidental take permits. The wildlife groups had put BNSF on notice that it would intend to sue on Oct. 19, 2019, but no action was taken.

From 2008 to 2023, the conservation groups document that 63 grizzly deaths because of the train line.

The court documents also outline ways that railroads can help reduce hitting bears by train, which include reducing train speeds around curves or in canyons or areas with few escape routes.

“Train-triggered warning systems that signal the impending arrival of a train can lessen the chance a train will strike a grizzly bear,” it said. “Warning systems like flashing lights and bell sounds can lessen the chance a grizzly bear will enter the trestle. Electrified mats near a trestle can lessen the chance a grizzly bear will enter the trestle.”

The suit also said that railroads can take more precautions from spilling or leaking grain, and lessening other livestock around the rails, including removing animal carcasses, which would help reduce grizzly deaths, the suit said.

“We are extremely disappointed that, after all these years, BNSF has refused to change its business practices to prevent the unnecessary deaths of Montana’s iconic grizzlies, resulting in the tragic deaths of three bears just this fall,” said Sarah McMillan, wildlife and wildlands program director at the Western Environmental Law Center in Missoula. “When a company chooses to operate in the epicenter of key habitat for a threatened species, it must take some responsibility to adapt practices to minimize its impacts on these animals.”

Daily Montanan is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Daily Montanan maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Darrell Ehrlick for questions: info@dailymontanan.com. Follow Daily Montanan on Facebook and Twitter.