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Between trains and animals, no contest

Elk graze along train tracks near Kremmling during deep-snow years. CPW “dispatches” the injured when it can.
Zach Swennes/Colorado Parks and Wildlife

The stretch of railroad between Winter Park and Kremmling slices through a tough country of tawny grasses, sagebrush and rocky cliffs. The winters are harsh, cold and windy, and for the wildlife living in this region of Colorado, the going can often be tough. The elk and deer herds that live here winter in low terrain, such as river valleys and canyons, which protects them from the gusts blowing off the plains. There, it’s also easier to find food. Unfortunately, this also happens to be where the Union Pacific Railroad sends trains on their route from Winter Park to Kremmling. And especially in heavy snow years, collisions between wildlife and locomotives can be commonplace.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife states that the cause of the collisions is the fact that wildlife uses the railroad and county roads as a way to navigate through deep snow. You’ve heard the adage “a deer caught in the headlights.” Well, that applies just as well to a Toyota Corolla as to 14,000 tons of steel barreling down the railroad tracks at 50 miles per hour.

The unfortunate reality of this situation is that wildlife will inevitably be hit by trains if they walk on railroad tracks. It happens more often in winter than in the summer. Jeff Behncke, the District Wildlife Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Hot Sulphur district, said the number of animals hit by trains depends on the severity of the winter.



“Most of these railroads sit in river bottoms where animals winter,” says Behncke, “and specifically this winter, we’ve had a lot of snow that concentrates them along the railroad tracks.”

According to statistics provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, some 87 elk, 39 deer, 3 eagles, one bobcat, and a number of domestic dogs have been killed by train collisions (though Behncke points out this is a rough estimate). Oftentimes when an elk or deer is killed by a train, scavengers such as eagles can also be hit. Scavenging animals feed on the carcasses of these larger animals, which can stay on the track until a train comes through again.



Once a collision occurs, the railroad will contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and employees like Behncke will travel to the location where the animal was hit.

“Union Pacific railroad workers are not allowed to carry firearms, so they call us, pick us up at a crossing, we go out to check on the animals, and if they have to be put down, we put them down,” Behncke said.

Once Behncke shoots an injured animal, if he has enough time, he will try to harvest meat from its body. What meat he can salvage is donated to local families in need of food assistance, a list Colorado Parks and Wildlife keeps. Of course, the quality of the meat depends on how hard the animal was hit.

“You

Animals that are injured or killed by trains can be donated to families in need of food assistance. The meat is donated in large sections or whole to the families.
Tracy Ross/Sky-Hi News

can imagine that a freight train hitting an animal at 50 miles per hour. That meat is sometimes just not edible,” Behncke said.

As for solving the problem, Behncke suggests that implementing a slower speed limit on this stretch of railroad may help lessen the amount of collisions by giving Union Pacific employees more time to react to an animal along the tracks. Behncke also stated that spraying herbicides along the railroad tracks to decrease vegetation may also shrink collisions, mainly because there would be no food present for the animals to eat near the tracks. The only problem with this, said Behncke, is that the railroad could only spray so far before it starts killing vegetation on lands used by ranchers to graze livestock.

But neither of these proposed solutions can control the weather, and since the number of wildlife killed by trains correlates with how much snow Grand County gets, the problem will likely remain.

 


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