The BNSF Railway Company Tuesday published a long-awaited habitat conservation plan intended to reduce grizzly bear mortalities in Northwest Montana.
Eight grizzlies were killed on railroads in near Glacier National Park in 2019, the most of any year on record. Those bears are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. That same year, conservation groups threatened to sue, alleging those railway-related deaths violated a part of the ESA that prohibits all killing of protected animals, even if it’s accidental.
That’s just the latest in two decades of legal threats over railroads and grizzly conservation, says Courtney Wallace, a spokesperson with BNSF.
"Over the last 20 years, we’ve been working with state, federal and tribal officials, really, to get a good plan in place that helps reduce grizzly mortalities caused by trains. And so this is a culmination of those efforts."
The plan requests that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issue a special permit that allows 18 bears to be killed, without penalty to BNSF, on about 200 miles of train tracks that run along the southern border of Glacier, over the next seven years.
In exchange, BNSF pledges about $2 million over the same time period for measures that will help reduce other kinds of grizzly mortality. That includes funding for more bear managers at Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and the Blackfeet Nation, along with money for conflict reduction measures like electric fencing, bear-proof waste containers, and education and outreach.
Ordinarily, plans like this one would receive lengthy analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act. But this one received “categorical exclusion,” usually reserved for projects that don’t have a significant environmental impact. That means federal agencies get to skip environmental impact statements and other studies that come along with the NEPA process.
Sarah McMillan, conservation director at WildEarth Guardians, says there are promising measures in the plan, but it allows too many grizzlies to die on train tracks.
"Giving them permission to kill 18 grizzly bears over seven years and considering it a categorically excluded activity is kind of shocking to me."
The plan will be administered by the Montana Outdoor Legacy Foundation, and it’s open to public comment until February 11.