Environmental Groups Sue BNSF Over Drunken Grizzlies, Hit by Trains

Not enough is being done to protect grizzlies — some of them intoxicated by fermented grain — from killing trains along Montana’s remote railroad lines, claim two environmental groups suing the railroad. .

The Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad (BNSF) is in violation of the Endangered Species Act, according to a recent lawsuit filed against BNSF in the US District Court for the District of Montana by the Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians.

In some cases, grizzles eat grains that ferment after spilling from railroad cars, and then are carelessly abandoned or buried on railroad tracks after being hit, Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Erik Molvar told Cowboy State Daily.

“Then the grizzlies eat that, and the drunken grizzlies go on the trails,” Molvar said.

Basically, environmental groups say the railroad is responsible for plowing bears, after plowing.

Not true, the company says. In fact, BNSF continues to work with wildlife agencies and is taking steps to protect grizzlies, according to a statement from the company.

Three Bears Killed This Year

Grizzlies have been hit and killed by trains along the railroad line that runs through Marias Pass and the Great Bear Wilderness, according to reports from state and federal wildlife agencies. Those bears are part of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE) grizzly population, which is separate from Wyoming’s Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzlies.

And grizzly deaths along the tracks have increased since 2008, according to environmental groups.

“From 2008 to 2018, trains operating on BNSF railroads killed or contributed to the death of approximately 52 grizzly bears from the NCDE grizzly bear recovery zone,” according to the groups’ lawsuit. “In 2019, eight grizzly bears from the NCDE grizzly bear recovery zone were killed by BNSF railways trains. In 2023, three grizzly bears from the NCDE grizzly bear recovery zone were killed by BNSF or Montana Rail Link railways trains. .”

The three bears killed this year were all hit in September, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit calls for BNSF to be declared in violation of the ESA and that the court should “enjoin BNSF from violating the ESA by ordering it to stop causing the take of grizzly bears.”

Molvar said the groups argue that BNSF needs to do a better job of cleaning up overgrown grain, big game carcasses and other temptations for grizzlies along the tracks.

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And trains should slow down in prime grizzly habitat, he added.

“You shouldn’t be able to speedball into critical habitat and cut off an endangered species,” he said.

A former BNSF train conductor once told the Cowboy State Daily that when he rode the lines in Montana, he often saw grizzlies and other wild animals along the trails and sadly, some of the animals were beaten and killed.

Railroad Says It’s Working to Keep Bears Safe

BNSF disputes the environmentalist group’s claims, saying the railroad takes adequate measures to avoid hitting bears and other wildlife.

BNSF spokesman Zak Andersen told the Cowboy State Daily that the railroad is always up check channels and clean up spills.

He told the Cowboy State Daily this week that he could not comment in detail about the pending litigation. However, he forwarded a statement to the company about the railway’s stand and some wildlife safety measures it has taken.

“While BNSF does not comment on specific cases, we are working closely with stakeholders, including the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and the Blackfeet Nation to eliminate avoidable grizzly bear mortality since 1990s,” the statement said.

“Recently, we have been working on creating a Habitat Conservation Plan and a draft HCP was published in January 2021. Hundreds of comments were received, and the final HCP has been submitted to the US Fish & Wildlife Service for review by the it is yet to be published. ,” it says.

Steps taken by the company to reduce grizzly deaths include removing fallen grain and carcasses from trails and cutting vegetation along trails for better visibility, according to BNSF. .

The railroad is also providing money for “additional grizzly bear managers” for state and tribal agencies, as well as for bear awareness programs, radio collars for grizzly research and litter boxes. uncoated litter and electric fence.

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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