29 July 2019
Transportation infrastructure can cause an ecological trap if it attracts wildlife for foraging and travel opportunities, while increasing the risk of mortality from collisions. This situation occurs for a vulnerable population of grizzly bears ( Ursus arctos) in Banff National Park, Canada, where train strikes have become a leading cause of mortality. We explored this problem with analyses of rail-associated food attractants, habitat use of GPS-collared bears and patterns of past mortality. Bears appeared to be attracted to grain spilled from rail cars, enhanced growth of adjacent vegetation and train-killed ungulates with rail use that increased in spring and autumn, and in areas where trains slowed, topography was rugged, and human density was low. However, areas with higher grain deposits or greater use by bears did not predict sites of past mortality. The onset of reported train strikes occurred amid several other interacting changes in this landscape, including the cessation of lethal bear management, changes in the distribution and abundance of ungulates, increasing human use and new anthropogenic features. We posit that rapid learning by bears is critical to their persistence in this landscape and that this capacity might be enhanced to prevent train strikes in future with simple warning devices, such as the one we invented, that signal approaching trains.
This article is part of the theme issue ‘Linking behaviour to dynamics of populations and communities: application of novel approaches in behavioural ecology to conservation’.