Deep snow may lead to record moose deaths on roads, tracks

Michelle Theriault Boots

A dull-brown moose with a prominent rack steps delicately onto Anchorage's Minnesota Drive in the January afternoon twilight, as cars streak past.

He stops traffic as he ambles into deep snow on the edge of the road -- barely avoiding becoming part of the growing ranks of the winter's unlucky moose.

For moose, heavy snowfall means misery and this winter is shaping up to be a deadly one.

As of Jan. 20, 118 moose had been killed on Alaska Railroad tracks since October, according to a spokesman for the railroad.

Only 49 moose were struck in the same period last year.

On roadways the situation is bad too, said Gary Olson, the executive director of the Alaska Moose Federation.

This winter is "well above average" for moose kills on roadways in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, home to one of the state's densest moose populations, according to Tim Peltier, an assistant area biologist for the Department of Fish and Game's Palmer offices.

The last number he'd heard was 269.

The usual season average is 270.

"This winter, we could double that," Olson said. "We're on our way."

Olson's organization, which acts as an advocacy, education and salvage group, has recently started helping respond to calls from Alaska State Troopers to remove dead moose from roadways.

So far this year, the group has delivered at least nine salvaged moose carcasses to charities (minus the head -- that goes to the Department of Fish and Game for testing).

That's too many, Olson said.

"We don't want to pick up so many moose off the roads dead," he said.

The spike in moose deaths is probably the result of heavy snowfall in Southcentral Alaska this winter, said Jessy Coltrane, Anchorage-area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Anchorage has received more than 90 inches of snow since October.

When snow gets deep in the mountains, skinny ungulate ankles have trouble maneuvering, and favored browsing foods like willows are buried.

Moose are then apt to relocate to flatland haunts that promise easier mobility and more opportunities for food but that puts them in much closer contact with humans -- along with their cars and trains.

While collisions with vehicles and trains account for a significant number of moose deaths, many die of starvation or other injuries during winter months, Coltrane said.

After the especially harsh winter of 1994, the local moose population dropped from a high of 2,200 to 1,500.

Right now, the moose population in the Anchorage Bowl is about 1,500 -- the lower end of Fish and Game's preferred population of 1,500-1,800.

If this winter continues to bring heavy snow, "we will see a significant decrease in moose numbers, if history repeats itself," Coltrane said.

The Alaska Railroad sees lots of moose kills, in part because the cleared tracks tend to be a magnet for moose sick of standing around in 3 feet of snow, said external affairs manager Tim Sullivan.

This isn't a record-breaking winter for moose deaths on the railroad tracks but it could be close.

Historically, moose kills have been as high as 300 in the October-to-March season, he said. But that was back in the 1970s and 1980s.

With at least 10 weeks of winter left, this season's 118 is on pace to far exceed a typical winter's toll.

From Oct. 2010 to March 2011 the railroad saw 124 moose strikes, with 68 the previous year and 119 the year before that.

Spreaders clear snow 25 feet on either side of the tracks in an attempt to give moose somewhere other than the tracks to stand, said Sullivan.

Crews also clear 50 miles of moose-specific trails in the Mat-Su valley area, where one of the densest populations exists, specifically to give the animals alternative routes.

Many moose-train collisions happen in the Willow and Talkeetna areas, he said.

Conductors try to avoid hitting moose by letting them know the train is coming but sometimes it's just not possible to stop in time, Sullivan said.

A moose doesn't do much damage to a train but kills are distressing to train crews and passengers, Sullivan said

"No one likes it or gets used to it," he said.

It's unclear just how many moose have been killed by cars on Alaska roadways this winter season, with state agencies each saying a different entity records the data.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game does postmortem examinations of moose heads in order to look for signs of chronic wasting disease but they do not tabulate overall statistics, an employee said.

Troopers respond to reports of moose-vehicle crashes but the data they gather ends up with the Alaska Highway Safety Office, which is part of the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Due to a system that involves incident reporting on paper forms that are in turn processed in Omaha, Neb., the most recent data on overall moose highway deaths available is for 2009, said Jack Stickel, the transportation information group manager with the DOT.

"We're behind," he said.

Some 575 moose were reported to have been killed on roadways in 2009, he said.

A new electronic system that's being phased in starting this year should speed things up in the future, he said.

No human deaths as a result of moose-vehicle collisions have been reported since 2009, said Joanna Reed, who works in fatality reporting for the Alaska Highway Safety Office.

There's one sure strategy for not becoming part of a moose-related collision statistic this winter, Coltrane says: Assume all moose have a self-destructive streak.

"If there's a moose standing on the side of the road, assume it's going to throw itself in front of you," she said. "Slow down."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.

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