Moose Carnage Prompts Concern


PROPOSAL: Group aims to curb collisions, conserve ungulates

Doug O'Hara / Anchorage Daily News / February 22, 2004


Alaskans have been crashing cars and trucks into moose about five or six times per day since the start of the year.

The carnage includes a tragedy near Mile 105 of the Parks Highway on Jan. 5. John J. High of Trapper Creek died after his Subaru Legacy smashed into a moose with hardly enough time to tap the brakes. A family man survived by his wife and two young children, High was driving home from work.

That same day, drivers near Willow, Sutton, Palmer, Wasilla, Kenai and Seward also plowed into moose, according to the Alaska State Troopers. These were among more than 230 moose knocked down on rural highways since Jan. 1, about 100 more than the same period last year.

At least 16 people have been hospitalized or hurt, while hundreds have limped their cars home with dented fenders and shattered glass.

In Anchorage, where deep snow has driven an estimated 1,000 moose into neighborhoods, parks and streets, more than 120 moose have been killed since summer.

The specter of a huge brown animal lurking at the fringe of headlights continues to be the white-knuckle nightmare of every Alaska driver: 1,000 pounds of meat and bone threatening to bolt across your path.

Driving highways becomes a seasonal moose roulette that annually kills one to three people and injures at least 100 more. Last March, a 13-year-old boy died when a car driven by his mother crashed into a moose dashing across the Glenn Highway near the weigh station.

Even when no one gets hurt, moose collisions cost millions of dollars in property damage and lost time, and leaves hundreds of wild animals mangled by the roadside.

Despite fences, lights and periodic campaigns to alert drivers or get them to slow down, the annual toll has averaged 650 across the state and 155 inside Anchorage since the early 1990s.

Biologists and wildlife advocates say the current situation unnecessarily risks lives while wasting one of the state's most valued food resources and wildlife icons.

Most of the moose kills in the Anchorage Bowl are from cars -- not predators, said Anchorage area biologist Rick Sinnott, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "We salvage as many of the moose as possible for human food, but I'd guess dozens die that aren't found until it's too late to salvage them."

Each accident can easily cost thousands of dollars, often more than the vehicle is worth, said Nancy Carpenter, spokeswoman for State Farm Insurance in Alaska.

"Our claims adjusters look at anywhere from three to six moose-car type collisions per week in the winter," she said. "Because of the stature of the animal, their height and their long legs, they tend to get tossed onto the car, doing significant damage to hoods and windshields."

But a new statewide group wants to sponsor an aggressive program to conserve moose and head off accidents. The Alaska Moose Federation wants to find a way to transplant up to 250 moose per year out of Anchorage into rural areas with open habitat.

A "nuisance moose" bill introduced this month by Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, would authorize that.

The group proposes to raise money for research or to help build structures to keep moose off roads. With a board of advisers that includes the governor and the state's congressional delegation, the federation hopes to launch a moose movement that will include youth moose troops. Its Web site is www.growmoremoose.org .

"What we're in right now is absolute genocide, with everyone in Mat-Su and Anchorage and the Kenai playing Russian roulette at night with their vehicles," said Gary Olson, the group's organizer and chairman. "Regardless of your perspective, it's unacceptable."

At the same time, state and federal biologists have been pushing detailed studies of new road projects to find ways to reduce moose-car crashes.

Planners working on an extension of Bragaw Road across the Campbell Creek bottomland in Anchorage are also trying to find some recipe of fences, lighting and underpasses to keep moose off the road.

"It's a big issue on this project," said Kristen Hansen, with Dowl Engineers.

The Alaska experience with moose mirrors a growing crisis in some Lower 48 cities with exploding deer populations. In a sense, the phenomenon is part of a broad ecological shift that allows human-tolerant animals to thrive near settlements without fear of natural predators. With habitat crisscrossed by roads, these animals must negotiate traffic to feed or bed down.

All these factors converge in Anchorage. Park-side boulevards like Tudor Road and Lake Otis Parkway, and Hillside collectors like Abbott and O'Malley and Rabbit Creek roads, concentrate the problem.

"It's a bad death zone in town because the moose are moving down through from the hills and coming out of (Far North) Bicentennial Park," said assistant state biologist Jessy Coltrane. "In order for moose to reach habitat, they have to cross a lot of high-speed, high-volume roads, and there's really no crossing structures."

Through the end of January, Anchorage drivers had killed 28 more moose than they had by the same time last winter. Since October, Sinnott and Coltrane have shot 20 crippled moose and found a couple of dozen others dead from unknown causes.

"It could be that they're dying of internal injuries, that they got hit by a car," Coltrane said. "Or it could be that they're feeding on garbage and they're getting blocked up."

Motorists north and south of Anchorage are also smashing into moose more often than usual, though the Alaska Railroad has reduced crashes from the 1990s. Through last week, the death toll was 286 moose on Mat-Su roads, and 276 moose on the Kenai, according to state biologists. Trains have killed 57 moose through Friday, including eight inside Anchorage and 27 in Mat-Su, said chief engineer Tom Brooks.

"We're probably on track to have either the second or third highest road kill numbers since we started keeping records," said Mat-Su-area state biologist Gino Del Frate.

Finding a long-term solution to the problem means finding where moose migrate during winter and why, preferably by tracking moose with collars, said Kenai-area biologist Jeff Selinger. That would allow planners to design specific fixes for specific stretches of roads, whether fencing, lights, by-passes or changing vegetation.

High moose numbers in Anchorage and reports of low moose numbers in some rural areas inspired Olson to propose moving the city moose out of town. He argues that Anchorage could serve as a kind of moose incubator.

"We need to take moose where they are a liability right now and move them into an area where they are an asset, and that's something that's never been done before," he said. "This could go a long way to heal the rural-urban divide in this state."

But Sinnott, responsible for managing the city's moose, said transplanting moose presents logistical problems. Catching so many moose would be a full-time job that would become increasingly difficult after "the dumb ones" got snatched. Only certified people working under the supervision of a veterinarian can use the drugs that knock out and revive moose.

And then there would be other matters to resolve: Should moose be immobilized for hours, or allowed to wake up inside a trailer? Could an adult moose ride in an airplane safely? Would city-born moose survive when faced for the first time with wolves or an unfamiliar forest.

Still, it's worth thinking about, Sinnott said. "And it may be worth doing some limited experimentation."

The federation organizers are "very sincere and their heart is in the right place," he added. "They just need to do the right thing, and I think they're willing to do that. But I don't think we know what the right thing is right now."

Meanwhile the carnage marches on. On Feb. 12, an ordinary winter Thursday, drivers in Livengood, Nenana, Richardson, Tazlina, Palmer and Wasilla killed moose, according to the Alaska State Troopers. On Abbott Road of the Anchorage Hillside, a yearling bull leapt in front of a Dodge pickup heading east from Lake Otis Parkway at 6:17 a.m.
The result was typical: the truck sustained damage to the right front fender; the moose broke its legs, couldn't get up and was shot by police. The driver, Anchorage resident Travis Parry, was unhurt and received no citation, police said.

"The problem is that moose are so dark, and that area there is not well lit," said patrol officer Michael Busey. "If the moose walked out in front of him, there's not much he could do."

The moose was so mangled that only 40 pounds of meat could be salvaged for hamburger for two needy families, said Troy Nicholson, an Army National Guard sergeant who collected the carcass an hour later.

"I'm sure the vehicle just saw it at the last minute," said Nicholson, who himself ran into moose with his truck three years ago in Turnagain Pass, sustaining $13,000 in damage.

Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at do'harra@adn.com


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