A pilot project in Banff National Park that is using escape trails and other spaces cut along a rail line to reduce wildlife mortality rates is showing promise, Parks Canada says.
Researchers are two years into a five-year project with an objective to find ways to reduce wildlife deaths along the train tracks.
West of the Banff townsite — where the tracks curve through thick forests and steep hills — they have cut about 38 kilometres of trail off of the rail line, and others that run parallel to it.
The idea, park officials say, is to provide wildlife with potential escape routes from trains, and a network of alternative pathways through the area.
“You have to recognize that they will select to use the rail at times, so what we are trying to do here is to reduce the probability that they’ll get struck,” Parks Canada Resource Management officer Dave Garrow said.
“So [we’re] giving them options off of the rail, to travel outside of the rail corridor — and as well as giving them a higher success rate of leaving the rail under duress.”
Cameras show wildlife moving off tracks
The areas where the trails have been cut include rough terrain and other features that mean fewer route options for animals, park officials said.
The behaviour of the wildlife, and their use of the trails, are being monitored by trail cameras that have captured a variety of animals using the parallel paths in the area — and some to escape passing trains.
Parks Canada Resource Conservation Manager Bill Hunt told CBC News that though it is still early for the project, the initial results are promising.
“Our sample sizes aren’t large enough yet to get significant results, but the initial results are showing that … that wildlife are using the parallel trails once we clear them out. We’re starting to see quite a bit of additional wildlife use there,” Hunt said.
“We’re seeing camera images showing wildlife coming off the railway, sometimes under duress leaving the railway tracks, so that’s encouraging to see those.”
And because the strategy has minimal impact on rail operations and is relatively low maintenance, it could eventually be replicated along other sections of the railway if it works, park officials said.
Pilot project backed by years of research
The project is one of the wildlife management initiatives to come out of a recent study involving Parks Canada and the University of Alberta looking at wildlife deaths on railway tracks.
It examined 646 wildlife deaths on railway tracks in Banff and Yoho national parks in Alberta and British Columbia between 1995 and 2018: 59 bears; 27 wolves, coyotes, cougars and lynx; and 560 deer, elk, moose and sheep.
“The top predictor was train speed,” said lead author Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a biological sciences professor at the University of Alberta. “Next was distance to water, then the [amount of] water near the site and then curvature in the tracks.”
Train speed and track curvature, she said, make it difficult for wildlife to detect trains, while being close to water hinders their ability to get off the tracks before being hit.
The study was published in Nature’s Scientific Reports in November of 2020, and built upon a five-year research project funded by Parks Canada and Canadian Pacific Railway from 2010 to 2015 that focused on grizzly bears being struck by trains in the same two parks.
It concluded that giving grizzlies better travel paths and sightlines along the railway was the best way to keep them safe.