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BNSF seeks permit for 'taking' grizzlies in exchange for conservation efforts

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | January 12, 2021 3:20 PM

BNSF Railway Co. on Monday submitted an application to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for a permit that would authorize the incidental “take,” or killing, of grizzly bears in exchange for enhanced conservation efforts.

If granted, the permit would allow the railroad giant to take approximately 18 grizzlies over the course of seven years along 206 miles of track situated within, or adjacent to, the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. The ecosystem, which includes Flathead, Lincoln, Glacier and Toole counties, is currently earmarked as a recovery zone for the bears, which have been listed as threatened since 1975.

The permit area in question stretches from Trego to Shelby and is described in the company’s application as a spanse that “generally incorporates the area of known incidental take of grizzly bears attributed to BNSF operations in Montana.”

As part of the permit application, BNSF also submitted its long-awaited Grizzly Bear Habitat Conservation Plan — something the company has been slowly working on since grizzly-train incidents became more prominent in the 1990s.

The conservation plan, now available for public review on the Federal Register, outlines mitigation measures designed to reduce train-caused grizzly mortalities in Northwest Montana.

BNSF intends to carry out the plan over the course of seven years, in exchange for the permit. Afterward, the company may voluntarily continue its conservation strategy, as is laid out in the plan, and if recovery efforts between now and then do not lead to the area’s grizzly population being delisted, BNSF may apply for a permit renewal.

The plan commits more than $2 million to funding grizzly bear conservation projects and programs over the lifespan of the plan, which was developed after years of consulting with bear experts with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP), the Blackfeet Nation and Glacier National Park.

The proposed program would implement measures to reduce bear attractants and would provide support to FWP and the Blackfeet Nation for reducing human and grizzly bear conflicts through increased personnel, equipment and education.

“The Habitat Conservation Plan represents years of local conservation collaboration between BNSF Railway, public agencies, Tribes, and local communities across northwest Montana,” said Jim Williams, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Regional Supervisor in Kalispell. “This plan will commit important funding that increases resources for on-the-ground grizzly bear conservation work between Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. FWP is grateful that BNSF is supporting the future of grizzly bear recovery.”

TO AID in the development and implementation of the plan, which would be administered by the Montana Outdoor Legacy Foundation, a technical committee also was formed. The group, according to the document, would review the railway company’s work, offer recommendations on how to adapt the plan to future changes in the environment and would also provide an annual report to FWS.

The committee is made up of federal and state agency personnel, representatives from BNSF, Amtrak and conservation groups, and others who have long worked in grizzly bear management within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

The plan notes that bear managers in the technical committee “agree that BNSF’s efforts [so far] have minimized grizzly bear take incidental to BNSF operations to the maximum extent practicable.”

It is their hope that the conservation plan will help now stakeholders address other issues related to the take of grizzly bears, which has been a growing problem in recent decades.

According to data within the plan, only eight grizzlies had been recorded as dying via a conflict with a train from 1975 to 1989 within the recovery zone. But from 1990 to 2019, as recovery efforts for the endangered species took off, more than 60 have perished in the collisions, with the highest death toll occurring in 2019 at eight deaths.

Overall, train collisions have accounted for about 8% of grizzly bear deaths recorded from 1975 to 1990. Management efforts, which include euthanizing bears that have become food conditioned, account for the most mortalities at 26% and illegal killings, which range from actual poaching to hunters mistaking a grizzly bear for a black bear, account for 25%.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com