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2017.10.18 Venison sandwich? Elk steak? Are bears next?

By RICH FOLEY 

Yes, it’s true. The venison sandwich is back at Arby’s, at least it will be starting Saturday, although I’d bet I’m not the only one who never knew it had been there before. Apparently, the delicacy, if you can call it that, was available in several locations, including one outlet in Michigan, for a limited time last fall. A very limited time, actually, as the item sold out in a few hours, according to the restaurant chain.

This year, it’s being sold nationally. The meat comes from a supplier in New Zealand who is providing grass-fed, free-range venison. To help hide the taste of deer, Arby’s marinates it in garlic and tops it with onions and a juniper-infused steak sauce. That’s pretty fancy compared to Arby’s usual dead cow sandwich with “horsey” sauce. 

If you want something really different, a few Arby’s in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado will be offering an elk steak sandwich. This one is “drenched in a blackberry port steak sauce and loaded on a toasted specialty roll.” I doubt that toasting the roll is going to help. It’s still going to taste like elk. I think I’ll stick with the dead cow.

While I’m on the subject of dead animals, there’s also the plight of grizzly bears in the Canadian province of Alberta. Seventeen bears have been struck and killed by Canadian Pacific locomotives on the tracks near Banff so far this century. Even though the railroad was completed in 1883, bear-train collisions were almost unheard of until the last decade or so. Why it’s happening now is a mystery.

Although 17 bears may not sound like much, that reduces the population in Banff National Park to just 60. The entire province of Alberta, as big as California and Oregon combined, is home to only about 700. The species reproduces at a very slow rate so every bear lost is a tragedy.

The most popular theory regarding the bear-train collisions was that bears congregated around the tracks to feed on grain dropped from train cars. That opinion was so widely held that the Canadian Pacific Railway actually began sending a rail-mounted vacuum truck out to clean up grain spills.

Researchers studying the issue had the unenviable task of collecting bear droppings and analyzing them to discover how many had grain in them. Results showed that grain wasn’t nearly as big a component in bear diets as expected. Only a few undersized bears who apparently had trouble finding food were eating barley, canola and lentils spilled from passing trains.

But the usual food sources have been changing over the last couple of decades. Wolves recolonized the area in the mid-1990s, greatly reducing the population of elk, a longtime favorite meal of the grizzly. Bears gradually added vegetation such as horsetail and sweet vetch, both good sources of protein, to their diets.

Berry bushes and dandelions also attract bears and often grow near the tracks, so Canadian Pacific has been cutting vegetation near the rails both to reduce the attraction and to give bears a better chance of spotting oncoming locomotives before it’s too late. Since most bears have poor eyesight, anything to help in that regard is a good thing. A bear known as “The Boss” could attest to that.

The Boss, known to researchers as Bear 122, is something of a legend in the park. Not only does he weigh at least 600 pounds, he’s also the only grizzly known to have survived a train strike. Researchers who assumed he was hanging around the tracks to eat grain instead found he was actually dining on the carcasses of train-killed deer, elk and moose. A recent invention designed to help bears like him is currently being tested.

Jonathan Backs, a PhD candidate who holds an engineering degree, has developed a device about the size of a brick that is attached to train tracks near possible collision spots. It is activated by rail vibrations from oncoming trains about 30 seconds before the train reaches the spot, triggering flashing lights and beeping sounds, intended to teach bears that a train is coming and they need to move.

But what if bears instead decide the signals mean that there may soon be a dead deer, elk or moose to dine on? That could actually attract them, causing more deaths. It will be interesting to see what happens. I just hope the folks at Arby’s don’t hear about this and get any more sandwich ideas.