Conservation officer Greg Johnson sees it too often. A massive moose lying helpless in the woods, its back broken by a different and deadly predator. A freight train.
“It’s an ugly thing,” said Johnson who works for the Idaho Fish and Game Department. Last winter three moose were hit at once. All had their backs broken and lay there for days before being killed. The same thing happened to five elk.
Railroad tracks run through some major big game ranges in Bonner and Boundary counties. The freight trains, rumbling through some areas at 60 mph, are taking a huge toll on herds of elk, deer and moose.
“We’ve always looked at it as something that just kind of happens. We throw our arms up in the air and say we can’t really do anything,” Johnson said. “But maybe we can. The guys on the railroad are horrified by it, and we are hearing support for trying to do something.”
The deadliest stretch of track for big game is near MacArthur Lake. The route runs north to Bonners Ferry and into Montana. About 40 moose and 40 elk perished on the tracks last winter. Another 300 to 400 deer were run down.
“That’s from talking to the guys who work the tracks,” Johnson said. “They are only seeing the ones that die right there, not the injured that escape into the woods. We don’t have an accurate picture of how many we are losing.”
The large number of kills have wildlife officials worried. Elk hunting is big business in North Idaho. When five elk get hit at once, it can quickly diminish a herd.
“The loss to big game herds has been pretty tremendous. It’s a fairly significant concern,” Johnson said.
The problem could get worse. Burlington Northern, which runs more than 30 trains a day through the Sandpoint area, recently started installing a second set of tracks. That means more trains and the likelihood of more train-critter collisions.
One idea conservation officers have is to determine where most accidents occur and slow trains down on that section of track. “I think speed is part of the problem,” Johnson said, adding he was not blaming the railroads. In fact, railroad engineers have been good about calling in and reporting accidents so animals don’t suffer.
In winter, the tracks are the easiest place for big game animals to walk. It gets them out of the deep snow, said Fish and Game spokesman, Phil Cooper. “The tracks are clear, and they use them to get around to find food,” he said.
Sometimes the animals will munch grain spilled from the railroad cars. At times the herd will also bed down on the tracks. Years ago in southern Idaho, a train killed 57 antelope at once, Cooper said.
When a train comes, the animals are frightened by the noise and blinded by the light. They flee along the path of least resistance - down the tracks, in between the snow berms, Johnson said.
“The animals know they need to go fast and the snow will slow them down. They don’t realize the train is not going to come off the tracks and get them, They just know there is this big monster behind them,” he said. The trains will continue to kill animals just like cars strike deer on the highways. Conservation officials just want to reduce the number of deaths.
“Maybe if we put out heads together with the railroad and sportsmen we can come up with something,” said Johnson.