Risk for Tipsy Bears: Getting Hit by Trains

Spilled grain ferments near tracks, making bears vulnerable, reports 'Cowboy State Daily'
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 11, 2023 3:20 PM CST
Odd Risk for Grizzlies: Being Drunk Near Train Tracks
Grizzly bear 863, a sow known as "Felicia" in wildlife watching circles, crosses a highway east of Moran, Wyoming.   (Ryan Dorgan/Jackson Hole News&Guide via AP)

There are no PSAs warning grizzly bears not to linger on train tracks, and in one corner of Montana, grain spilling from passing railcars has increased the danger. Attracted to the rare treat, bears are getting tipsy on the grain as it ferments from rain and moisture, Cowboy State Daily reports, and at least 63 have been struck since 1980 along the Marias Pass and the Great Bear Wilderness sections of Glacier National Park. Retired federal ecologist Chuck Neal calls the stretch of tracks a "de facto brewery." He says the grizzlies "might fall asleep right on site if they get drunk first. They can, and have, fallen asleep in a drunken stupor right on the tracks."

The bears also try to outrun the trains, Neal said, and end up getting "smashed." Despite the known risk documented over decades, he believes Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail company has not moved aggressively enough to prevent the accidents, and is "stalling" in hopes the bears will be delisted from endangered status. He told Cowboy State Daily that ideas to prevent the collisions include installing a noise maker that's triggered by approaching trains in the most dangerous areas (though if the bears are tipsy, it might not making a difference). Other potential solutions involve BNSF carrying lighter loads or not running in certain weather conditions.

The Glacier Park grizzlies are part of the two remaining populations in the continental US (the other is nearby in Yellowstone). Both groups have over 1,000 bears, and while trains aren't a risk to the Yellowstone group, vehicle collisions are, with at least six deaths this year alone. A little further north in Elk Valley, British Columbia, young bears are being struck by cars and trains at an alarming rate—so much so that bears between 2 and 6 years old have the highest mortality rate in North America. Per the CBC, a report published in Conservation Science and Practice says collisions are young bears' leading cause of death, with 42% involving trains (33% are attributed to vehicles). (After 5 years, a Canadian biologist solved a grizzly bear mystery.)

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