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Change in caribou migration could lead to more Glenn Hwy. crashes

Tegan Hanlon
Nelchina caribou herd at Meier's Lake
Photos courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Two caribou from the Nelchina herd crossing Denali Highway
Photos courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Alaska State Troopers reported two collisions between vehicles and caribou on the Glenn Highway last week and an area biologist said she doesn't expect the crash rate to slow down this winter.

Only about a third of the roughly 35,000 caribou in the Nelchina herd migrated from the Glennallen area to their traditional range near Tok in early October, a sizable decrease from the 90 percent that traveled northeast last year for wintering, said Becky Schwanke, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

This means more caribou are scavenging for food, particularly lichen, in areas of older black spruce trees near the highway,

Schwanke flagged the stretch of Glenn Highway between Mile 150 and 180, west of Glennallen, as an area of especially heavy caribou traffic. The Lake Louise Road is a Mile 160.

Troopers said a 52-year-old man in a Dodge pickup truck hit and killed two caribou just before midnight Thursday at Mile 174. The next day and within miles of the first crash, a Toyota pickup truck driven by a 55-year-old woman collided with a caribou near Mile 178.

Neither driver was injured, troopers said. But with the caribou population expected to stay through winter, Peters and Schwanke caution travelers to remain alert.

"It's a bad deal for everybody when an animal gets hit," Schwanke said.

Schwanke described caribou as "very, very unpredictable animals" and said she couldn't definitively say why a majority of the Nelchina herd chose to stay in the Glenallen area this year.

Tok, with a more shallow snowfall, is usually a favorable location for caribou because their diet grows on the ground, she said.

"Caribou are typically out of sight, out of mind most winters," Schwanke said.

Schwanke hypothesized that some caribou may have changed their wintering strategies after a late-arriving 2013 spring kept early vegetation, which the animals rely on, covered in snow. Caribou didn't get an early boost of nutrition or the chance to put on body fat, she said.

The caribou that stayed are scattered between the first 30 miles out of Glenallen on the Glenn Highway and up to Lake Louise, Schwanke said.

"They are definitely wintering here and they're going to be here all winter," she said.

And then there are moose. .

A Ford pickup truck driven by a 42-year-old man hit and killed a moose on Jan. 7 near Mile 3 of the Tok Cutoff in Gakona, according to a trooper report. Three days later a 25-year-old man in a Kia, swerved to avoid a moose and struck a guardrail at Mile 101 of the Richardson Highway in Copper Center.

Schwanke said moose in the Glenallen area normally start off the winter at about 3,000 feet and as the snow falls, they move down the mountain and closer to the highway to eat fast-growing, willow shrubs.

Peters said moose on the roadways are more common than caribou and troopers haven't noticed a spike in collisions with the animals.

Additional caribou warning signs have popped up along the Glenn Highway, Schwanke said.

"We try to remind people annually that this is the time of year, these short days, so many us are driving in the dark going to work and coming home," she said. "Anytime we drive distances we get complacent and it's just so important for people to clean off their headlights and drive slower."

Reach Tegan Hanlon at or 257-4589.