PALMER -- A unique Alaska Department of Fish and Game winter hunt that allows the public to shoot moose along Mat-Su roads to reduce the risk of vehicle accidents is poised for its busiest year yet.
The so-called "targeted" hunt starts Monday. It will give as many as 300 hunters a shot at a cow or calf moose within two miles of the road in four areas along the Parks Highway, Glenn Highway and Knik-Goose Bay Road.
The state started the hunt to reduce moose-vehicle collisions in those potentially dangerous corridors but it's also become a popular midwinter opportunity for fresh game in an area of the state where biologists say moose numbers are not only healthy but growing.
More than 1,100 hunters registered for the hunt, state officials said.
Alaska has the highest rate of moose-vehicle collisions in the world. Eight people have died in Alaska in fatal motor vehicle accidents involving moose since 2009, including three in the Mat-Su, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
Todd Rinaldi, the state wildlife biologist in Palmer, said the targeted hunt program gives hunters access to moose meat before the animals cause problems -- or worse -- for motorists and end up in a roadkill salvage program.
"In essence, put these moose in the freezer without involving an insurance man or a hospital," Rinaldi said.
Reducing moose-vehicle collisions is the program's priority but not its only goal. The hunt allows biologists to kill "problem" moose on a case-by-case basis, officials say. It also distributes hunting pressure away from the busy fall season.
The hunters on the list for this year's targeted hunt permit applied in October. A computer randomly assigned each name a number and organized them numerically from low to high. Applicants had to have successfully completed a certified state hunter education program; bow hunters needed a bow hunter education certificate for some areas. Because the hunt occurs near populated areas, only shotguns and bows -- which have shorter trajectories than rifles -- can be used.
The department and Alaska Wildlife Troopers will conduct random field checks to monitor the hunters.
Rinaldi each week notifies up to 12 people on the list that they're up for a permit. Each comes into the Palmer office and picks in which of four areas they want to hunt.
The biologist started with eight hunters this week but plans to ramp it up to a dozen soon.
"I don't want to oversaturate the landscape right away," he said. "People aren't used to seeing hunters in these areas along the roads."
Kory Blake spent a chunk of time Thursday at the Palmer Fish and Game office, doing research for a friend from Soldotna who has a permit.
Blake said he's helping his buddy prepare for the hunt. He set up a temporary room for hanging meat. He picked up five different maps of the Knik-Goose Bay area where his friend will hunt. And he scribbled down phone numbers for Alaska Native corporations that own land in the area so he can call and ask for permission to hunt on their land.
"We want to be successful," he said. "We don't want to step on anybody's toes."
Trespass complaints are the main criticism the state hears about the targeted hunt, he said. Authorities urge hunters to get landowner permission before hunting on private land, though it's not required by statute.
During the Mat-Su road hunt, the state also requires hunters to wear a hunt-specific orange vest issued by the department to identify them as permitted hunters. Hunters are required to remove gut piles from private property, and make sure they're not near roads or trails.
Alaska's hunting regulations don't specify shooting distance from a road, Rinaldi said. Instead, they ban hunting "on, across or from a drivable surface."
The Alaska Board of Game approved the targeted hunt around Palmer and Wasilla in March 2011 after heavy snows forced moose out of the mountains and down to roads where they could move more easily instead of wallowing in drifts. The last two winters haven't been as snowy but the number of permits issued every year has gone up: 50 permits in 2011 with 44 moose killed; 198 permits issued in 2012 with 148 moose killed; and up to 300 permits potentially issued this year.
The increase this year stems from a March Board of Game meeting in Wasilla, when the board authorized another 100 permits for a targeted hunt from Willow north. Rinaldi said roadkill data, as well as the type of property in the area, will influence hunt areas there.
At the same time, state numbers show the number of moose dying on Valley roads has dropped, in part due to less snow. Fish and Game statistics that run from July through June show that 455 moose died on Mat-Su roads in 2011-2012, followed by 226 in 2012-2013 and 128 for the last half of this year, as of Dec. 18.
But the state doesn't yet have statistics to prove the program reduces collisions, Rinaldi said.
"The last two years haven't been very high snow years, and so the number of moose collisions have subsided," he said. "We harvested 148 animals last year. I would like to think that was 148 additional chances that a car could have hit one of those moose. We're assuming at this point it is having some effect on the number of collisions in the Valley but we don't have that yet."
Reach Zaz Hollander at email@example.com or 257-4317.
By ZAZ HOLLANDER