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Spilled grain from February train derailment concerning as Banff bears wake from hibernation: official

WATCH: Parks Canada and CP Rail continue clean-up efforts after a train derailment in February in Banff National Park. Officials warn that the grain on the track could be attracting hungry bears just waking up from hibernation. Jenna Freeman reports.

Officials with Banff National Park are taking precautions to ensure a quantity of spilled grain from a month-old train derailment won’t attract bears waking from hibernation to the vicinity of a popular hiking and recreation spot within the park.

Following a 20-car CP Rail train derailment on Feb. 28, grain was spilled near the Johnston Canyon hiking trail and the Fireside picnic area, leading to a closure of a portion of the Bow Valley Parkway.

READ MORE: 20 train cars derail between Banff, Alberta and Field, B.C.: TSB

While the Johnston Canyon hiking trail itself was unaffected and is open to visitors, more than a month after the derailment, the grain has still not been cleaned up.

A 17-kilometre stretch of the highway, including the main access route to Johnston Canyon and a portion of land in the area, remain closed off.

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A closure sign is seen at one of the entrances to Johnston Canyon on March 29, 2019.
A closure sign is seen at one of the entrances to Johnston Canyon on March 29, 2019. Jenna Freeman/Global News

According to Banff resource conservation manager Bill Hunt, all the derailed cars and large pieces of metal have been removed by Canadian Pacific, but there’s still a lot of work to do to clear the site.

“There’s canola spread all through the forest floor and down into the moss and areas that were heavily damaged when the cars hit,” Hunt said on Friday.

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He said Canadian Pacific crews are using large vacuums that run underneath the railroad tracks to suck up the loose grain, which he said is mixed in with tree limbs, rocks, dirt and mud.

In a photo provided to Global News from Parks Canada, an electric fence, vacuum and mixed debris, including bits of metal, can be seen on the forest floor.

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A look inside a fenced enclosure at the site of a CP Rail train derailment in Banff National Park.
A look inside a fenced enclosure at the site of a CP Rail train derailment in Banff National Park. Parks Canada

With spring in full swing in the Rocky Mountains, hibernating animals are starting to wake up, which is presenting another challenge for the clean-up efforts.

According to Parks Canada, the first grizzly bear activity of spring in the national park was logged on March 19.

The presence of grain is leading some to worry those waking bears, as well as other animals, may smell the grain and head to it in their search for food.

As a result, Parks Canada has erected an eight-foot electric fence around the derailment site, which will give any animal that attempts to get inside a small shock, in hopes of deterring them from trying to eat the grain.

“We know that bears travel the rails at this time of year,” Hunt said, adding that every year, bears seek out the tracks because they tend to be free of snow and often have bits of spilled grain along them.

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READ MORE: Bear safety tips: what to do if you spot a bear

Crews are also diverting animals to alternate food sources placed a far distance away. In one case, animal carcasses were brought to a site west of the derailment where a large male was known to be sleeping, which worked to keep it away from the spill, Hunt said.

“He detected that natural food source and is now hunkered down in the woods chewing on a piece of deceased animal from a railway or a highway accident,” Hunt said.

“So that’s helped keep that bear in a safe area and allowed the CP workers to finish their clean-up.”

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Hunt said the carcasses will only sustain him for so long though, and officials expect he will eventually start moving east and may encounter the site.

“The rush is on to get that last bit cleaned up. We don’t’ want bears challenging the fence or interacting with workers in any way.”

A Parks Canada employee gives a bear safety presentation near the Johnston Canyon recreation area.
A Parks Canada employee gives a bear safety presentation near the Johnston Canyon recreation area. Jenna Freeman/Global News

Parks Canada told The Canadian Press on March 1 there was concern the grain may attract hungry grizzlies.

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While Parks Canada officials are overseeing the project, CP Rail is responsible for the clean-up of the derailment site.

In an emailed statement, the railway company said it’s working with Parks Canada throughout the clean-up and said “significant progress has been made.”

“In collaboration with Parks Canada, CP has retained wildlife experts to implement measures to keep wildlife away from the remaining grain and monitor wildlife activity in the area,” spokesperson Salem Woodrow said.

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CP Rail would not say why it’s taken more than a month to clean up the grain or give a timeline for when the project would be finished. It also declined to answer questions around typical timelines for derailment clean-ups.

The closure is set to end on April 1, but Hunt said officials aren’t ruling out the possibility that it could be extended if the clean-up is not finished or the bear eating the diversion carcass moves into the area.

He added park officials are pleased with the status of the clean-up and are “cautiously optimistic that it’s been successful.”