State biologist: Minnesota Drive moose fence could increase crashes

nherz@adn.comJuly 22, 2013 

A state wildlife biologist says a proposed fence to keep moose off Minnesota Drive and O'Malley Road in Anchorage may harm the animals, and may even increase the number of collisions with cars.

Alaska Fish and Game biologist Jessy Coltrane said in an interview that her agency opposes the fence and has provided comments to state traffic planners.

She said that because the sections of fence have to open at intersections along the five-mile stretch, the project won't reduce the risk to moose or to drivers.

"We would love to reduce moose collisions -- don't get me wrong. But I just don't think that this is necessarily going to be the best way to do it," Coltrane said. "It may actually have the opposite effect."

Coltrane said the state would be better off slowing traffic, increasing lighting, and clearing vegetation along the road.

Officials with the state's Department of Transportation are already planning to cut brush as part of the project, to help drivers see moose before it's too late. But they argue that the other fixes recommended by Coltrane won't work. They say that even if more moose end up in cross streets like Raspberry Road and 100th Avenue, drivers will still have more time to react to those encounters.

"We know that the numbers at those locations will go up. We're not trying to prevent the moose from crossing the corridor," said Kevin Jackson, the project manager for the fence. "We're just trying to channelize them in those locations with lower speed."

Traffic planners estimate the fence will cut in half the number of vehicle-moose collisions along Minnesota and O'Malley. There were 106 such crashes between 2000 and 2010, making that stretch of road the most dangerous in the city when it comes to encounters with the animals, according to DOT statistics.

The installation will cost $4 million to $5 million, and will be paid for with federal money. It has drawn ire from Anchorage residents who live near Minnesota, who fear DOT's clearing of vegetation along public land could expose their homes to more highway noise.

The fence will run from International Airport Drive south to an overpass just west of the Old Seward Highway. But there will be several gaps along the way at cross streets, said Coltrane, the biologist.

Many of the animals will quickly find their way through, she added, because the stretches of fence will be "relatively small from a moose perspective." Those that don't find their way through could be cut off from their habitat, she said.

IMPERFECT SOLUTION

DOT officials said they recognized that the project was an imperfect solution. But they said they had still seen collisions plummet by as much as 80 percent after installation of fencing along the Glenn Highway, where there are also gaps.

"I think you have two agencies that have a disagreement on the projected theoretical benefits of the project," said Rick Feller, a DOT spokesman. "We understand their concerns, but we still think this is worthwhile."

Boosting lighting along the corridor wouldn't help, since it already meets safety standards, said Jackson, the project manager.

"You would essentially just be wasting electricity," he said, "and the visibility would not be that much better."

And despite police enforcement efforts, slowing traffic wouldn't work either, because most drivers were ignoring the posted speed limit on Minnesota before it was boosted to 60 in 2009, said Scott Thomas, a DOT traffic engineer.

"(The police) gave it their best attention, and our own data showed that wasn't making everybody go 55," Thomas said.

Steve Buchta, an investigator with the Anchorage Police Department's traffic unit, disputed that assertion, saying the majority of drivers are "self-policing" and speeds on Minnesota had increased since the limit was raised. He agreed that it would be tough to bring it back down.

"Once you've let the cow out of the barn," he said, "you can't put it back."

Buchta said he thought the best way to cut down on vehicle-moose collisions would be a mix of clearing, fencing and slowing drivers.

"There's never been, historically, one solution to a traffic issue," he said. "It's going to be a combination approach."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

 

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