Freight Train Collides with Elk Herd in Washington State, Killing 26 Elk

The herd frequently used the railroad tracks as a travel corridor
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Herd of elk in Washington
The herd was killed near the Columbia River on the southwestern border of the state. Lance Cheung / USDA

Two dozen elk died in Washington State last week when a freight train on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line collided with a herd that was standing on the tracks. Three of the 26 elk had to be euthanized due to injuries, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife police communications consultant Becky Elder tells Outdoor Life of the March 9 incident.

The train crew triggered the train’s emergency response but couldn’t halt the locomotive in time to avoid hitting the elk, according to Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The collision occurred about a mile and a half east of the Cape Horn Overlook, not far from Portland, Oregon. BNSF owns the land that the tracks sit on. BNSF police responded to the scene, where they dispatched the three injured elk. WDFW police also responded and got permission to access the scene.

“This is an unfortunate anomaly. We don’t often hear of these types of collisions occurring, and the magnitude is something we have not seen in recent history,” Elder says. “Mass mortality events like this are extremely rare. WDFW believes the incident won’t impact the herd’s population. We see a robust elk population in this area.”

Elder also says the area acts as a sort of funnel for elk and other wildlife. The track corridor, which runs along the Columbia River and the southwestern border of Washington, allows elk to travel to nearby agricultural lands primed for grazing.

“The area has dense vegetation and rock cliffs. [This] flat space without any trees makes it easy for those animals to move through those corridors. Unfortunately, in the location where the incident occurred, there wasn’t a lot of space for the animals to divert off of the tracks.”

BNSF’s general director of public affairs Lena Kent told The Columbian that the crew moved the carcasses off the tracks to avoid endangering future trains. They currently remain beside the tracks.

“Unfortunately, animals were not able to be salvaged,” Elder says of the elk meat. “The Columbia River Gorge is beautiful, but it also has some very steep and rocky terrain. Getting to the location in a timely manner to attempt to salvage any of the meat would not have been possible, if there was any to actually salvage.”

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The BNSF railroad is also used for Amtrak passenger trains. The collision occurred between the Bengen-White Salmon and Vancouver stations. A westbound passenger train runs this route on a daily basis. According to KPTV, BNSF described the scene as “disturbing.”

“Twenty-six elk is a lot,” Elder says. “Something of that magnitude, you can only imagine how dramatic that type of incident looks.”