Biologist Slams Fort Richardson Fence Plan

FISH AND GAME: Wildlife expert says proposed barrier would take severe toll on moose, other animals.

Doug O'Harra / Anchorage Daily News / September 14, 2003


A controversial proposal to fence much of Fort Richardson's boundary through Anchorage has drawn sharp criticism from the state's local management biologist, who argues the current design will indirectly kill off lots of moose.
Building up to 34 miles of 8-foot chain-link or galvanized rail barriers from Chugiak to Muldoon and Far North Bicentennial Park will also create serious problems for other wildlife and even contradicts Fort Richardson's natural resource policy, according to official written and verbal comments by Rick Sinnott, representing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"The proposed fence will have a greater impact on moose populations than any other project in the 90-year history of Anchorage," he wrote.

In a 13-page memo to the Army, Sinnott argued that the military's fence analysis contains mistakes and bad data, doesn't consider the impact combined with other military projects and may violate federal rules. The whole project needs to be redone under a broader and more detailed environmental study.

"If I had my way, I would see them abandon the fence idea," he said this week.

Though Sinnott focused on wildlife issues, he also criticized the Army for not sharing information with him or seeking other state biologists' advice in advance.

"It's unheard of in this day and age to just do everything in-house and then just spring it on the public," Sinnott said.

Environmental officials with the U.S. Army in Alaska declined to respond specifically to most of Sinnott's objections this week. His were among 200 comments received through Monday about the fence's impact, said Army spokesman Maj. Ben Danner, and all deserve study.

But four environmental officials who worked on the fence study disputed several of Sinnott's assertions during an interview this week and insisted their data about Anchorage wildlife and moose behavior were sound.

The draft environmental assessment of the fence was released in July so that Sinnott, Anchorage residents and anybody else could respond to it, said Doug Johnson, chief of the Army's environmental resources in Alaska. The study was handled correctly under federal rules, he said.

"I'm a (National Environmental Policy Act) purist," Johnson said. "I believe in this process."

After realizing the intense public interest, the Army scheduled two public meetings not required, he said.

What the Army does next -- whether picking a fence design or launching further studies -- depends largely on those comments, Johnson added. No decision has been made or deadline set.

"We take this process really seriously," Johnson said, sitting at a conference table piled with two-inch thick studies and publications from his staff. "We love it when we get comments. (They) help us arrive at a better decision, and that's what we're supposed to do."

The Army's natural resource plan states that fences shouldn't impede wildlife movement. But the same plan also points out that military or security goals come first, said Johnson and his staff.

The Army says it wants the fence to mark its boundaries and discourage people from wandering onto the post during training. In addition, it has said it wants more security, and that plans for more training by soldiers using the new light-armored Stryker vehicles make a fence more important.

The proposal sparked a summer-long outcry in Muldoon, where sections of 8-foot chain link would often hug private property.

Community councils have protested. Hundreds have signed anti-fence petitions. People jammed public meetings, most saying the fence would end reasonable recreational access and would damage property values. Others argue a fence running through the woods, made with gaps for wildlife, would not offer enough security to justify the cost.
The Army has found support, too. Last week, the executive committee of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution in favor of the fence, saying the community must show support for Fort Richardson in light of future base-closure discussions.

Sinnott's comments covered the effect of the fence on bears and smaller mammals, too. But much of his focus was on moose.

By closing off the moose gates in the existing fence along the Glenn Highway and then leaving one section of the highway blocked by rails where moose could cross, the fence plan would offer the big lumbering animals a way in but no way out, he said.

"If moose do not immediately and safely cross the road, they could be trapped on the highway corridor," he wrote. "This will be a very dangerous situation for motorists ... and will increase the number of moose-vehicle collisions."

The Army's environmental officials insisted that moose almost never use the gates or an underpass along Ship Creek. Since the rails would cross a section that contains almost no fencing now, the new plan would not put any more moose on the highway than motorists face in the present.

"The moose gates were a good idea, but they don't work," Johnson said.

"Well of course they work," Sinnott countered later. "They have no proof that they don't work."

In other areas, a high fence would cut wildlife off from winter food, or trap moose calves on the opposite side from their mothers, making them easy prey for bears or wolves, Sinnott argued.

Sections with three galvanized rails positioned between 22 inches and 46 inches above the ground would be both too low and too high for newborn calves to cross, Sinnott said.

"If they had to have those gaps plugged by some kind of rail fence, what they would need to have is a single rail about 42 inches high," Sinnott said later. "The problem is almost anything they can do to let moose through will also let people through, so why have the fence?"

Army natural resources expert Bill Gossweiler and environmental planner Kevin Gardner both said they would look closely at Sinnott's comments about the rail heights. Gossweiler said he had already adjusted the proposed height of the lower rail from 16 inches to 22 inches to try to make it high enough for calves to crawl under.

"This is exactly the kind of comment that we need to make this better," Gardner said.

Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at do' --

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