The grain train drain 

The timing couldn’t have been worse for grizzlies or the people who manage them.

Fall is when grizzlies, preparing for hibernation, become most active in their search for food, making a large grain spill in prime grizzly habitat caused by a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train derailment that much worse.

Spilled grain, as it ferments, attracts grizzlies to the tracks, where trains can hit them. The spill, outside of Essex, is expected to take three months—the entire fall—to clean.

BNSF is spending more than $1 million to reduce the impact of the spill by putting an electric fence around the tracks and grain, and hiring the Wind River Bear Institute, which manages bears using Karelian bear dogs, to keep grizzlies away as the grain is cleared.

But even with these efforts, Brian Peck, a consultant with Missoula’s Great Bear Foundation, says the spill drains grizzly management resources for an extended period when they’re needed most.

And it didn’t have to be this way, Peck says. When the trains derailed on Aug. 26, only three freight cars spilled their grain.

Each day, BNSF sends 45-50 trains across this stretch of tracks. Leaving the track blocked for any length of time would have caused a backup in the corridor connecting the northwest shipping ports to the rest of the country. So to clear the tracks quickly, BNSF purposefully toppled another 20 freight cars down a steep slope, spilling more grain.

The result, Peck says, adds months to the clean-up time.

Over the last decade, there have been several spills in this same area, Peck adds.

Because of the frequency of these spills, he thinks BNSF should station equipment for putting freight cars back on the rails nearby, so they could avoid pushing them off the tracks.

But Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF, says the rail company already has some equipment nearby for dealing with derailments, and believes that BNSF is fulfilling its obligation to protect the bears.

“We’ve spent millions in the past years on cleanups,” he says. “We’ve taken every step to ensure that the environment and wildlife are protected.”

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